Adverse childhood experience (ACE) is a term established in a 1997 study conducted by Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). It is used to describe all types of abuse, neglect, and other potentially traumatic experiences that occur to people under 18.


According to CDC’s website, childhood trauma is linked to risky health behaviours like smoking, substance abuse and chronic health conditions such as diabetes, cancer and early death. Changes in the brain chemistry observed in people with ACEs can make them more likely to engage in high-risk behaviours such as the use of tobacco and alcohol, which are associated with physical health risks like cancer and cardiovascular disease. Even when people with ACEs avoid this high-risk behaviour, the impact that ACEs have on brain development still creates physiological changes therefore resulting in a decline in their health.

For example, prolonged stress can increase adrenaline and cortisol levels, this in turn elevates blood pressure, affecting the heart and circulatory system. Cortisol and adrenaline can also increase glucose levels and increase the risk of type 2 diabetes. This constant stress alters the functioning of the adrenal glands, weakens the immune system, therefore developing chronic illnesses in adulthood.

Health conditions associated with ACEs

Autoimmune disease

A study in 2019, found that 63% of patients with lupus reported having one or more ACE, and nearly 20% had four or more ACEs. 1

Cardiovascular disease

Research has shown a strong association between exposure to ACEs and cardiometabolic disease, including heart disease, hypertension, and obesity.2

Chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD)

In a study on ACEs among individuals with COPD found that the risk for COPD increased as the number of ACEs increased. This further suggests that ACEs are an independent risk factor for COPD.3


ACEs exposure increases the risk of type 2 diabetes by 32%.4


ACEs predict high risk behaviours that increase the likelihood of later-life cancer.5


Having at least one ACE is associated with almost three times the odds of depressive symptoms among individuals reporting poor perceived social support.6

Substance use

According to a 2018 study, adults who experienced household abuse were 30% more likely to binge drink alcohol than the general population.7


1 DeQuattro, K., Trupin, L., Li, J., Katz, P. P., Murphy, L. B., Yelin, E. H., … Yazdany, J. (2019). Relationships between adverse childhood experiences and health status in systemic lupus erythematosus. Arthritis Care and Research. doi:10.1002/acr.23878

2 Suglia, S. F., Koenen, K. C., Boynton-Jarrett, R., Chan, P. S., Clark, C. J., Danese, A., … Zachariah, J. P. (2018). Childhood and adolescent adversity and cardiometabolic outcomes: A scientific statement from the American Heart Association. Circulation, 137(5), 137:e15–137:e28. doi:10.1161/CIR.0000000000000536

3 Cunningham, T. J., Ford, E. S., Croft J. B., Merrick M. T., Rolle I. V., Giles W. H. (2014). Sex-specific relationships between adverse childhood experiences and chronic obstructive pulmonary disease in five states. International Journal of Chronic Obstructive Pulmonary Disease, 2014(9), 1033–1043. doi:10.2147/COPD.S68226

4 Huffhines, L., Noser, A., & Patton, S.R. (2016). The link between adverse childhood Experiences and Diabetes,” Current Diabetes Reports, 16(6), 54.  doi:10.1007/s11892-016-0740-8

5 Ports, K. A., Holman, D. M., Guinn, A. S., Pampati, S., Dyer, K. E., Merrick, M. T., … Metzler, M. (2019). Adverse childhood experiences and the presence of cancer risk factors in adulthood: A scoping review of the literature from 2005 to 2015. Journal of Pediatric Nursing, 44, 81–96. doi:10.1016/j.pedn.2018.10.009

6 Cheong, E. V, Sinnott, C., Dahly, D., & Kearney, P. M. (2017). Adverse childhood experiences (ACEs) and later-life depression: Perceived social support as a potential protective factor. BMJ Open, 7(9), 7:e013228. doi:10.1136/bmjopen-2016-013228

7 Loudermilk, E., Loudermilk, K., Obenauer, J., & Quinn, M. A. (2018). Impact of adverse childhood experiences (ACEs) on adult alcohol consumption behaviors. Child Abuse & Neglect, 86, 368–374.  doi:10.1016/j.chiabu.2018.08.006

To read the original article from the Baylor University click here