How Childhood Trauma Affects Health Across a Lifetime





Post written by Nadine Burke Harris, M.D.


Three months ago, a TED talk I gave was posted on the Internet, and the emails, calls, and letters began pouring in — from across the country and around the world. Women and men from Texas and Louisiana, Australia and the Czech Republic urged me to do whatever I can to protect and heal children who are going through the same kinds of traumatic, stressful events they went through as kids. They shared with me their stories about those experiences and the many health problems they experienced later as adults. They also expressed their hopes and offered to be part of a solution. The letters touched me, and when I read some of them aloud at a recent staff meeting of the Center for Youth Wellness, my colleagues and I cried together. We also were deeply inspired.



The letters reminded me that just a few years ago, I felt I was shouting in the dark trying to get people to pay attention to a public health crisis that no one seemed to know about. As a pediatrician working in the Bayview neighborhood of San Francisco, I’ve seen that when children go through negative and highly stressful experiences, the toxic stress that can result from these experiences can exact a profound, lifelong toll on their health. I hoped that the TED talk would spark some discussion and awareness — but I had no idea how intense and emotional the response would be.

From the moment my talk was posted, my colleagues and I began receiving literally hundreds of emails, phone calls and messages, coming from people who felt compelled to share their own thoughts and experiences. They posted comments on the TED and YouTube sites, sent messages to our Facebook page and filled our office inboxes.

Some sought help and referrals. Others wanted to thank and encourage us for our work. But many recounted, often in anguished detail, their own history of dealing with Adverse Childhood Experiences (or ACEs, in the acronym used by doctors and researchers) and the impact it’s had on them as adults.

Research has shown that these experiences — which include abuse, neglect and household dysfunction –can have lifelong negative impacts on the health of a child and the adult they become. That’s been shown in numerous investigations, particularly in the groundbreaking Adverse Childhood Experiences study conducted in the 1990s and led by two researchers, Dr. Vincent Felitti of Kaiser and Dr. Robert Anda of the CDC.

Their team asked 17,000 adults about their history of exposure to ACEs — things like physical, emotional, or sexual abuse; parental mental illness, substance dependence or incarceration; parental separation; neglect or domestic violence. They tallied those experiences for each person and then looked at their health status over time. They found that the more of these adverse experiences people had as children, the more likely they were to suffer as adults from depression, heart disease, lung cancer, diabetes, and other conditions. The higher a person’s ACE score, the worse their health.

Nadine Burke Harris, M.D.Three years ago, I founded the Center for Youth Wellness to help the children and families of the Bayview Hunters Points neighborhood of San Francisco — and to do research that will enable clinicians throughout the country to better help children and families who are grappling with the effects of Adverse Childhood Experiences and toxic stress. Our goal is to develop an effective way to identify kids in the throes of these experiences and to offer them the best help and treatment possible. We know this will help children in our community and throughout the country.

The outpouring of letters and messages was yet another indication of just how many people this problem touches — and reminded me why I consider Adverse Childhood Experiences to be the biggest public health problem facing our country. One handwritten note from a 37-year-old woman was especially poignant. She wrote that she survived every Adverse Childhood Experience I mentioned in my TED talk and lives today with five chronic illnesses.

“While I don’t engage in risky behavior, have received the blessing of a college education and have a successful career — I still live with the health effects of my past,” she wrote. “It was very vindicating to finally hear someone point out the connections between chronic illness and childhood trauma.”

A 31-year-old woman told us she’d experienced severe physical and emotional abuse as a child, attempted suicide at 14, and today grapples with depression and high-blood pressure. Her younger brother has already had two heart attacks, and another brother is trying to cope with intense feelings of anger. She closed her email to us with a message of encouragement that we took to heart.

“Keep up the good work and when you feel like dropping the ball due to the insanity going on in the world, remember that you … are making a difference,” she wrote. “If one adult realizes what was done to them, they can avoid passing that on to their kids. People like me are going to live better lives because they know why life has been bad for them. A new generation of aware people can begin to emerge. We need it so desperately.”

Amen, sister.


Nadine Burke Harris, M.D., will be presenting this year at Transform 2015. Please click on the image below to learn more!



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