Everything that happens in our lives affects us; events can change us for better or worse, and some things affect us more than others. But did you know that suffering childhood adversity, such as extreme poverty, abuse, neglect, or a sick or alcoholic parent, can affect you right through your life? And it’s not just a mental health issue either. Experiencing toxic stress and adverse conditions as a child can actually alter your physiological make up and cause life-threatening physical diseases such as cardiovascular disease and cancer. 

The correlation between childhood adversity and later ill health was first discussed in a 1995 study by physicians Vincent Felitti and Robert Anda[1], and since then, the evidence has been mounting. Now, there can be little doubt that childhood adversity can and does affect later adult health. In that initial study, Felitti and Anda examined the childhood and adolescent histories of 17,000 people, looking for what they termed ACEs (Adverse Childhood Experiences), or chronic, unpredictable, and stress-inducing life events[2]. Of those they studied, a huge two thirds had suffered at least one ACE and 90% of those two thirds had experienced more than one[3]. They then looked at the correlation between the patients’ ACE score and their health – and the results were shocking. 

Mental Health

It makes sense that suffering one or more ACE or toxic stress as a youngster will affect your mental health as an adult, but it’s surprising just how much early experiences can alter your mental state. Experiencing poverty, abuse, neglect, or other adverse conditions as a child lead to developmental delays, lower IQs and brain activity, and a higher propensity for alcoholism, substance abuse, depression, and higher stress responses in adult life[4]. In fact, Felitti and Anda discovered that if a person had an ACE score of four or higher, they were a massive 460% more likely to suffer depression than someone with an ACE score of 0[5].

During childhood and adolescence, the brain is still developing and thus, is extremely sensitive to external stimuli. ACEs weaken this development and leaves the body’s stress response set on a permanent high, meaning that when the child reaches adulthood, they react in a more extreme way to simple, everyday stressors such as an unexpected bill or unpleasant conversation.[6]

What’s more, ACEs have been shown to “encode negative beliefs,”[7]leading sufferers to develop bad self-esteem and self-efficacy, hostility and mistrust towards others, emotional difficulties, and an increased likelihood of participating in harmful behaviors such as smoking, substance abuse, eating disorders, and high-risk sexual practices[8]. Of course, an additional consequence of these harmful behaviors is that the next generation will likely experience ACEs too[9], as their parents suffer from alcoholism, depression, and so on, and that is a dangerous cycle. 

Physiological Changes

It’s not all about mental health though. Experiencing childhood adversity has been shown to have drastic affects on an adult’s physical health too. For every ACE a child experiences, they are 20% more likely to be diagnosed with autoimmune disease as an adult. If they have experienced four or more different categories of ACE, they are twice as likely to develop cancer than someone who has experienced none. If a person gets an ACE score of six or more, their lifespan is shortened by a massive twenty years[10]. These are shocking results, but it doesn’t stop there. 

ACEs affect the immune system in a serious way. Brian F. Martin explains that “adults who experience ACEs tend to go to the doctors more often, have surgery more often, and have more chronic conditions than people who didn’t. […] Survivors are more likely to have irritable bowel syndrome, chronic pelvic pain, frequent headaches, and fibromyalgia”[11]. ACE sufferers age prematurely and MRI scans have shown that they have less gray matter than those who did not experience childhood adversity[12]. In fact, research shows that ACEs cause changes across the whole human genome, and therefore can cause a range of diseases, breaking down the barrier between mental and physical health[13].

Prevention and Cure

But is there anything we can do to stop it? Ideally, of course, we would eradicate all childhood adversity but, in the meantime, there are ways in which we can reverse the effects of adverse childhood experiences. David A Brent from the University of Pittsburgh School of Medicine says that “earlier foster placements can, to some extent, reverse the deleterious neurobiological and cognitive effects of extreme deprivation in infancy”[14]. Likewise, home visitation programs and access to good quality preschool education can help prevent the consequences of ACEs[15].

In 2012, the American Academy of Pediatrics pushed for a greater focus on preventing childhood toxic stress and adverse experiences and since then, a number of programs have arisen to help overcome and address these issues. Not least, Eric Pakulak at the University of Oregon has been working on developing teaching courses designed to modify parents’ behavior and reduce childhood stress. He says “we’ve shown that, after eight weeks, children in our intervention training group show the same brain function for selective attention that their higher peers show”[16].  

Most importantly, however, we must remember that creating a stable family environment and positive relationships between children and adults are essential for development and later good health, as they have “a significant impact on their cognitive, emotional, and social development”[17]. Although awareness and understanding of ACEs and their impact is certainly a start, there’s still a long way to go. 


[1]Donna Jackson Nakazawa, 2015, 7 Ways Childhood Adversity Can Change Your Brain, Psychology Today[online]. Available at: https://www.psychologytoday.com/intl/blog/the-last-best-cure/201508/7-ways-childhood-adversity-can-change-your-brain, accessed 08.07.2018


[3]Brian F. Martin & Kathleen Kendall-Tackett, 2015, ‘Because of the Adversity I Faced in Childhood, There’s Nothing I Can’t Do!’, Huffpost. Available at: https://www.huffingtonpost.com/brian-f-martin/because-of-the-adversity-_b_6497364.html?guccounter=1, accessed 08.07.2018

[4]Center on the Developing Child, 2018, InBrief: The Impact of Early Adversity on Children’s Development, [online]. Available at: https://developingchild.harvard.edu/resources/inbrief-the-impact-of-early-adversity-on-childrens-development/, accessed 08.07.2018

[5]Nakazawa, op. cit. 

[6]Center on the Developing Child, op. cit. 

[7]Martin & Kendall-Tackett, op. cit. 


[9]Shanta R. Dube, 2018, How childhood trauma can affect mental and physical health into adulthood, The Conversation[online]. Available at: https://theconversation.com/how-childhood-trauma-can-affect-mental-and-physical-health-into-adulthood-77149, accessed 08.07.2018

[10]Nakazawa, op. cit. 

[11]Martin & Kendall-Tackett, op. cit. 

[12]Nakazawa, op. cit. 


[14]Traci Pedersen, 2018, Childhood Adversity Affects Several Generations, Psych Central[online]. Available at: https://psychcentral.com/news/2013/05/06/childhood-adversity-affects-several-generations/54530.html, accessed 08.07.2018


[16]Alok Jha, 2012, Childhood adversity affects adult brain and body functions, researchers find, The Guardian UK[online]. Available at: https://www.theguardian.com/science/2012/oct/16/childhood-adversity-adult-brain-functions, accessed 08.07.2018

[17]Center on the Developing Child, op. cit.