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The link between childhood trauma and adult health problems

We often write about the devastating and long-lasting psychological effects of sexual abuse suffered during childhood. Whether a victim was abused once or repeatedly, the trauma can last a lifetime and affect mental and psychological health in profound ways.

But research is showing that mental health is just the tip of the iceberg. Childhood trauma, including sexual abuse, could impact your physical health as an adult. Those who suffered "adverse childhood experiences" (ACE for short) may be at higher risk for cancer, diabetes, stroke and addiction, among other ailments.

Research on childhood adversity as it relates to adult health was pioneered by two medical researchers who teamed up in the 1990s. Their initial study looked at 17,000 patients who were each asked to fill out a 10-question ACE quiz. The questions asked about traumatic or stressful events they experienced prior to age 18. These included:

  • Abuse: sexual, emotional and physical
  • Neglect: emotional and physical
  • Household dysfunction: Substance abuse, divorce, domestic violence, mental illness, incarcerated relative and death of a parent

The two researchers were shocked and saddened by how common such experiences are, especially abuse. But they also found a correlation between ACE quiz scores and poor health. Some of their findings included:

  • Compared to patients with a score of zero, patients with an ACE score of four or higher were generally twice as likely to suffer from heart disease
  • Compared to women who scored a zero, women with scores of five or higher were at least four times more likely to suffer from depression

Although this research began in the 1990s, the medical community was initially very skeptical of the link between ACEs and adult health. Since then, more and more health professionals have begun to understand the consequences of "toxic stress," especially when suffered in childhood.

For victims of childhood sexual abuse, this research has numerous implications. How much more money will they need to spend on a lifetime of health care, including therapy and medical care for conditions that may have been linked to the abuse?

Adults who are eventually able to come to terms with their abuse may wish to pursue a civil lawsuit against their abuser. Financial compensation cannot erase the injustice, but it can help victims heal - mind, soul and body.

Source: National Public Radio News, "Can Family Secrets Make You Sick?" Laura Starecheski, March 2, 2015

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