Adverse Childhood Experiences (ACEs) and their Effect on Health

Ask the Experts by Dr. Jennifer Kowalkowski

Q: I’ve recently heard about the link between something called Adverse Childhood Experiences (ACEs) and negative health outcomes. Given some different events in our lives, my children have at least two ACEs already. Is this something I should be concerned about?

A: ACEs are stressful or traumatic events that include abuse, neglect, and other household dysfunction such as witnessing domestic violence, family members with substance use disorders, or parental separation/divorce.

There is significant research demonstrating a relationship between ACEs and health problems such as increased risk for cancers, heart disease, diabetes, substance use disorders, and depression.

As you mentioned in your own family experiences, ACEs are relatively common. Also, if a person experiences one ACE, they are likely to experience more and the higher the ACE score, the greater the risk.

Stress plays a major role. There are many different types of stress responses and most are normal and essential parts of healthy development.

Children who experience high ACEs experience systems where the body and brain are activated at excessive levels and/or for prolonged time periods. This type of “toxic stress” has been shown to produce damaging effects, especially to the immune system.

You might be left wondering if there is anything anyone can do? The answer is yes!

In addition to trying to prevent ACEs, there is research to suggest that mindfulness-based approaches can help us regulate our emotions, promote resilience coping, and healing after trauma. Mindfulness can generally be thought of as the focus of one’s awareness on the present moment.

These strategies can help engage the deactivation center of our nervous system and possibly reduce the damaging effects of ACEs on our brain and body functions. There are various mindfulness apps available; Insight Timer is one that offers free guided meditations for all ages.

Jennifer Kowalkowski, PhD, Director of Behavioral Medicine for the Grosse Pointe Family Medicine Residency Program and Assistant Professor at Oakland University William Beaumont School of Medicine. Her clinical/research interests include integrated primary care, anxiety disorders, medical education, acceptance and commitment therapy, and women’s health. Dr. Kowalkowski can be reached at 586-498-4400. Beaumont is a member of The Family Center’s Association of Professionals.

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