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Many Adults Report Troubled Childhood Experiences

Exposure to Difficulties During Childhood Could Increase Risk of Health Problems in Adulthood, Researchers Say

By Katrina Woznicki
WebMD Health News

Reviewed by Louise Chang, MD

Dec. 16, 2010 -- More than half of adults surveyed reported experiencing one or more difficult childhood experiences, such as domestic violence or verbal abuse, indicating that troubled childhood experiences could be common, according to a CDC study.

Adverse childhood experiences, such as physical abuse, sexual abuse, parents going through a divorce, a family member being in jail, and being mentally ill or abusing drugs, have been associated with an increased risk for several health problems, including heart disease, depression, cancer, and diabetes. By identifying and documenting the prevalence of adverse childhood experiences (ACEs), health care providers can boost their efforts in child abuse prevention and other parenting programs as a means to reduce ACEs.

Health Risks From Childhood

In this study, researchers from five state departments of health analyzed data from 26,229 adults living in Arkansas, Louisiana, New Mexico, Tennessee, and Washington State. The survey participants were asked about their childhood experiences involving eight categories of ACEs: verbal, physical, or sexual abuse, household mental illness, household substance abuse, witnessed domestic violence, parental separation or divorce, and incarcerated household member. Fifty-nine percent of the group reported experiencing at least one of these eight ACEs. Among the researchers' other findings:

  • 8.7% of survey respondents reported experiencing five or more ACEs. Women were more likely than men to report more than five ACEs, 10.3% vs. 6.7%.
  • 41% reported no ACEs.
  • Substance abuse was reported by 29.1% of the group, whereas an incarcerated family member was the least common response at 7.2%.
  • More than a quarter of respondents reported being verbally abused as a child; 14.8% reported physical abuse, and 12.2% reported sexual abuse.
  • Sexual abuse was more common among females than males, 17.2% vs. 6.7%.
  • 26.6% of the group reported parental separation/divorce.
  • 19.4% reported a history of living with someone mentally ill.
  • 16.3% reported witnessing domestic violence.
  • Younger adults reported higher levels of physical abuse during their childhood compared with older adults, 16.9% among those aged 18 to 24 vs. 9.6% for those aged 55 and up.
  • Education was a major factor in ACEs, whereas race was not as significant. People with the least education were far more likely to report five or more ACEs compared with those who had higher levels of education; 14.9% among those who didn't complete high school vs. 8.7% among high school graduates vs. 7.7% among those with more than a high school education.

The findings are published in the Dec. 17 issue of Morbidity and Mortality Weekly Report (MMWR), a publication of the CDC.

"State-based surveillance of ACEs can provide guidance for the allocation of maltreatment prevention strategies and trauma-related intervention services," the authors write in MMWR. "In addition, more research is needed to disentangle the specific role each ACE plays in the development of health problems later in life."

SOURCE: Bynum, L. Morbidity and Mortality Weekly Report, Dec. 17, 2010; vol 59: pp 1609-1612.

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