Wednesday, March 18, 2015

Whatchoo talkin' about?

Fifteen years after The Adverse Childhood Experiences (ACE) Study was first published revealing that childhood maltreatment can lead to adult physical illness, it is still being knocked around as if it may not hold water. 

This flies in the face of the evidence most recently presented by What Shapes Health? a National Public Radio (NPR) series that explores social and environmental factors that affect health throughout life. The NPR series is inspired, in part, by findings in a poll released on March 2, 2015 by NPR, the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation and the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health.

In NPR's article, Can Family Secrets Make You Sick? Megan Gunnar, a developmental psychologist at the University of Minnesota who, for more than 30 years, has been studying the ways children respond to stressful experiences says: "This is how nature protects us." We all become adapted to living in "the kinds of environments we're born into." Thus, she adds, (stressful or traumatic events) "reshape the biology of the child"

And if you have scary, traumatic experiences when you're small, Gunnar says, your stress response system may, in some cases, be programmed to overreact, influencing the way your mind and body work together. Research in animals and people suggests that the part of the mind that scientists call "executive function" — thought, judgment, self-control — seems to be most affected, she says.

"I thought that people would flock to this information, and be knocking on our doors, saying, 'Tell us more. We want to use it.' And the initial reaction was really — silence," says Dr. Rob Anda, epidemiologist and co-developer of the ACE study.  

"Just the sheer scale of the suffering — it was really disturbing to me," Anda remembers. "I actually remember being in my study and I wept."

He wept. I wept when I learned about The ACE Study while researching my book, DYING TO LIVE: Running backwards through cancer, Lupus and chronic illness. There was an 'aha' moment when I took the ACE test. I scored an 8 out of 10 making me extremely likely to develop serious illness as an adult. Ya think? Stage 4B Lymphoma? Lupus? Gastroparesis? Depression? Anxiety? Oh yeah. 

And then came the part where Anda found out what happened to all those people when they grew up: "Very dramatic increases in pretty much every one of the major public health problems that we'd included in the study," he says. Cancer, addiction, diabetes and stroke (just to name a few) occurred more often among people with high ACE scores.

Now, not everyone who'd had a rough childhood developed a serious illness, of course. But, according to the findings, adults who had four or more "yeses" to the ACE questions were, in general, twice as likely to have heart disease, compared to people whose ACE score was zero. Women with five or more "yeses" were at least four times as likely to have depression as those with no ACE points.

"Over time, especially when you're young, experiences of neglect and abuse and stress impair those circuits," Gunnar says. "You're less able to tell yourself not to eat the ice cream, or smoke the cigarette, or have that additional drink. You're less capable of regulating your own behavior. And that seems to be terribly important for linking early experiences with later health outcomes."

I'm convinced of the accuracy of the results of these studies. 

I am living proof. 

Please spread the word. 

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