New CDC Report Shows Preventing Early Childhood Trauma Can Lead to Dramatic Improvements in Long-term Health and Life Outcomes

by Rush L. Russell, Executive Director, Prevent Child Abuse-New Jersey

103 Church Street, Suite 210, New Brunswick, NJ 08901

Last week, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention released a major new report, Vital Signs, focused on prevention of early childhood adverse experiences (ACEs).  Vital Signs is a monthly report from the CDC about a major health issue in the U.S. and what can be done about it.

This new report is the first-ever analysis that provides detailed estimates of the potential to improve the health of Americans by preventing ACEs.  ACEs are essentially indicators of serious traumatic incidents that happen to children and include events like child abuse, having a parent with mental illness or even divorce.

More than 25 years of research has found that this type of severe or “toxic stress” increases a child’s risk for later heart and lung disease, alcohol and mental health problems, unemployment, marital problems and even suicide.  ACEs have also been shown to modify the basic brain architecture governing a child’s learning and behavior.

This new report found more than 3 in 5 Americans have at least one ACE but maybe more importantly, 1 in 6 have an ACE Score of 4 of more, dramatically increasing their risk for poor health and life outcomes.

Other major highlights from this report include:

  • At least 5 of the top 10 leading causes of death are associated with ACEs.
  • Preventing ACEs could reduce the incidence of depression by 44% or 21 million cases.
  • Preventing ACEs could reduce the likelihood of other major health problems — such as chronic lung or kidney disease, asthma, and stroke — by 15% or more.
  • Preventing ACEs could cut current smoking by 33%, and heavy drinking by 24%

These numbers are astounding. Where else can you identify a key factor, in one place, that could substantially affect such a broad range of complex health and social problems?  

With the additional insight from this report, it underscores that the ACE Study is one of the most powerful public health studies of the last 50 years, and much more can and should be done to prevent ACEs and strengthen resilience among children who have experienced severe stress. But right now, not enough people know about the ACE Study or steps we can all take that make a difference.

The report cites a range of strategies that have been shown to be effective in preventing ACEs, including:

  • Strengthening economic supports for families:  Policies such as minimum wage, earned income tax credits, and family-friendly work policies have been shown to reduce the overwhelming stress leading to ACEs.
  • Connecting youth to caring adults/activities: Research shows that children having at least one caring adult acts as a protective factor that can reduce the impact of ACEs and strengthen resilience.
  • Ensure a strong start for children:  improving access to high quality child care and programs like evidence-based home visiting provide vital support to build a strong foundation for healthy child development, early learning and positive parenting.

What does the report mean for New Jersey?  First, the Department of Health is currently gathering ACE data for NJ residents so we will have our own state profile to act on.  Second, Senator Vitale introduced a resolution (SCR100) urging all legislators to be aware of the ACE Study and for the Governor to recommend new policies to prevent ACEs.  Every parent can recognize how their parenting practices may contribute to the type of toxic stress associated with ACEs.  Communities can expand programs that link children with positive mentors.  Businesses can adopt family-friendly work policies that reduce worker stress and absenteeism — and eventually the costs for health care premiums.  We can all raise awareness about the ACE Study and support the connections that can help parents more effectively navigate the many, and often stressful challenges, of raising our children.  We have an extraordinary opportunity to use this new information to build a brighter future for all children in New Jersey. 

For more information, read the Vital Signs Report:  https://www.cdc.gov/vitalsigns/aces/index.html

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