ACEs and Toxic Stress

Published: July, 2018

Adverse Childhood Experiences

We now understand that early exposure to stressful or traumatic experiences causes an over activity of the child's stress response and that this can increase their risk for learning and behavioural difficulties as well as increasing their risk of health difficulties such as heart disease and stroke. We know that early intervention makes a difference and that when the adults around the child understand what's happening in their child's brain and body they are able to make changes to support their child. This is the strong thread of hope in the science of stress and resilience.

Specifically prolonged activation of the stress response systems (toxic stress) can disrupt the development of brain architecture, affect immune systems, hormonal systems and how our DNA is read and transcribed. In pregnancy and very early childhood the brain is particularly susceptible to the affect of toxic stress but the affect of the alteration to brain architecture may not be apparent until the child is 7 or 8 years old. This is known as latent vulnerability.

The first major ACE (Adverse Childhood Experience) study examined relations between the number of ACEs reported by more than 17,000 individuals in the USA and their health as adults. It found that the more ACE types that individuals reported, the greater the risks of their health-harming behaviours (eg smoking, sexual risk taking) and both infectious and non- communicable disease. Felitti VJ, Anda RF, Nordenberg D, et al. relationship of childhood abuse and household dysfunction to many of the leading causes of death in adults.Am J Previous Med 1998; 14:245-58 Almost two thirds of participants reported having at least one ACE and 12% reported having four or more. A dose- response relationship was revealed between the number of ACEs experienced by an individual and negative health outcomes, such that with increasing numbers of ACEs the odds or reporting an illness or health risk also increased.

Specifically adults with an ACE score of 4 or more carried a 1.6x greater odds of reporting diabetes in adulthood compared with adults with a score of zero., 1.6 x likelihood of severe obesity and 2.2 x likelihood of Ischaemic Heart Disease, 4.6 x greater odds of reporting depressed mood in the last year,  4.7 x greater odds of ever having used illicit drugs, 10.3 x greater odds of ever having injected drugs and 12.2 x greater odds of ever having attempted suicide.

Toxic stress occurs with strong, frequent or prolonged adversity. It is characterisd by disruption of brain architecture and other organ systems. Toxic stress can be buffered by the child having a relationship with a responsive (empathic /emotion coaching relationship style) adult. Toxic stress is associated with poor impulse control and difficulty with emotion regulation.

Children experiencing ACEs of 4 or more carry a higher risk of developing diabetes/ Ischaemic Heart Disease/ severe obesity AND they are likely to have difficuty planning and managing their lives.

The theory put forward by Center on the Developing Child, Harvard University and The Youth Wellness Center in San Francisco is that some of the effects of toxic stress can be buffered by responsive relationships and the earlier in childhood that the exposure to the toxic stress is reduced and buffering begins, the better the outcomes.

The seminal study by Anda and Felitti  has since been replicated and expanded upon globally and in August 2017 The Lancet published a paper funded by Public Health Wales and produced by The College of Health and Behavioural Sciences, Bangor University, Wales (Professor K Hughes , Professor M A Bellis eg al). In this international systematic review and meta analysis risk estimates for individuals (age 18 or more) with at least four ACEs were compared with those with none. 

The conclusion drawn by the Welsh team is that having four or more ACEs is a major risk factor for many helath conditions. The outcomes most strongly associated with multiple ACEs in their study represent ACE risks for the next generation (eg violence, mental illness and substance use). 

A comment about the paper by Stuart A Kinner and Rohan Borschmann of Melbourne University, Australia  again in the The Lancet summarises the research as showing that exposure to at least four ACEs was associated with increased odds of poor mental, physical and sexual health; harmful substance use ; violence ( perpetration and victimisation); and physical inactivity. The association between multiple ACE exposures and subsequent suicide attempts gave an odds ration of 30:14 but the association between ACE exposure and self harm was not assessed. In addition the study showed a consistent association between exposure to at least four ACEs and poor health outcomes irrespective of the particular combination of ACEs pointing toward a causal pathway defined by cumulative exposure to stress, trauma and adversity rather than the specific effects of exposure to particular individual adversities. 

The dose dependent relationship between ACE exposure and poor health outcomes is not as clear in the Welsh meta analysis as in the original work by Felitti and Anda.  This reflects how the data was colllected - specifically the heterogeneity in construction of the exposure variable In the Welsh study.

The two articles in the Lancet are attached to this page as is a study of over 5000 adults in Northamptonshire, Luton and Hertfordshire and a small Welsh study which pre dated the meta analysis. A very recent study into the feasibility of routine ACEs assessment in General Practice is also attached again at the bottom of this page. The report describes, for routine enquiry about ACEs in Primary Care, the process of design and engagement. It explores practitioners’ experiences of delivery, challenges and barriers to implementation, and the perceived successes and impacts of the pilot. Practitioners’ reflections on opportunities for future development are also shared.  Data collected from quantitative patient feedback surveys are summarised and anonymised patient data are used to explore the relationship between ACEs and health and wellbeing outcomes, as well as to tentatively examine the impact of ACE enquiry on health service use.

It is important to remember that ‘Attachment Awareness’ programmes have run for decades within Public Services and Third Sector Organisations in the UK. ACE Informed practice differs from the embedded Attachment based practice in several key ways. The immediate difference is the concept that the impact on health, wellbeing and behaviour correlates with the level of toxic stress experienced rather than the specifics of the stress. This takes us away from the current model commonly used within Early Help Services of narrative accounts and assessments and into a model that focuses on the total level of exposure (? assess with a modified ACE score), education about toxic stress, reducing ongoing exposure through home visiting/ coaching and embedding Mindful Emotion Coaching approaches  in schools and communities.

EHCAP is applying the learning from these studies and from institutions such as Center on Child Development, Harvard and The Youth Wellness Centre in San Francisco within Youth Wellness Pods . We are attempting to identify what works or doesn’t work for particular subgroups and to enable collisions of expertise by collaborating across differing groups and services. 

View all news items

Sorry

ehcap no longer offer support for your browser.

For a faster, safer browsing experience
and to make use of the ehcap site features

Upgrade Now for FREE