Adverse Childhood Experiences and Health: Heart Disease, Lung Cancer, Depression


By: Kristine Alarcon

On the TEDMED stage, Dr. Nadine Burke Harris quoted Dr. Robert Block saying, “Adverse childhood experiences are the single greatest unaddressed public health threat facing our nation today.”

Dr. Harris’s career as a pediatrician changed once she discovered research conducted by Dr. Vince Felitti and Dr. Bob Anda called the “Adverse Childhood Experience Study.” The research focused on ACEs, which are adverse childhood experiences. ACEs include domestic violence, parental mental illness, parental separation, neglect (physically, emotionally, or sexually), or physical, emotional, and/or sexual abuse.

The 17,500 adults were each given a point for each traumatic experience and points were added up to create their ACE sore. The participants’ health outcomes were then studied and correlated with the ACE scores. Dr. Harris was surprised that ACEs were so common as there were at least 67% of the research pool that experienced one ACE and 12.6% who experienced four or more ACEs. Those who scored four or more, in comparison to those with an ACE score of zero, were more than twice as likely to develop chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD), had twice the risk of hepatitis, quadruple the risk of depression, and twelve times as likely to be suicidal. For those who had an ACE score of seven or more, they had triple the risk of lung cancer and were more than three times as likely to develop the leading cause of death in the United States, ischemic heart disease.

This is not just a problem in poor and underserved areas but everyone can be affected. The ACE study involved college educated people and Caucasians. Anyone can be affected by the overactive and constant stress responses that are caused by the adverse childhood experiences. It is especially important to treat the issue in the youth. Their immune systems, hormonal system, DNA processing, and brain formation and functioning can be impaired by the stress.

One step that Dr. Harris has started to drive the movement to bring attention to ACEs is by opening the Center for Youth Wellness in San Francisco, CA. There, she can provide preventative measures and even treat and heal the stress and impacts associated with ACEs. Some methods to do so are with holistic interventions, mental health care, home visits, and much more.

Kristine Alarcon is a senior at the University of San Francisco working towards a Bachelors of Science in Biology. She is a Social Media Assistant at Cancer InCytes Magazine.


Oran, Nicole. “Childhood trauma triples chances of heart disease and lung cancer in adulthood.” MedCity News.  Date Accessed, 1 May 2015.

Photo Credit: (TEDMED)




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