The Impact of Adverse Childhood Experiences on Addiction

The environment a child grows up in is not the single determining factor for their overall health and well-being as an adult. For example, countless children of alcoholics leave home to become productive adults who never struggle with alcohol or drug abuse.

In other words, the child of a banker robber won’t necessarily become a safecracker.

Adverse Childhood Experiences

The Influence of ACEs on Health

A developing field of science focuses on Adverse Childhood Experiences, referred to as ACEs, and how early trauma might affect a person’s long-term health, including the likelihood of developing a chemical dependency or addiction.

“Childhood experiences, both positive and negative,” reports the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), “have a tremendous impact on…lifelong health and opportunity. As such, early experiences are an important public health issue.”

The original study, conducted by Kaiser Permanente in the mid-’90s, has gotten more attention as healthcare professionals attempt to combat the ongoing epidemic of opioid addiction.

Dr. Daniel Sumrok, director of the Center for Addiction Sciences at the University of Tennessee’s Health Science Center’s College of Medicine, is one of ACEs biggest proponents.

“I’ve seen about 1,200 patients who are addicted,” Sumrok said in an interview. “Of those, more than 1,100 have an ACE score of 3 or more.”

Sumrok is referring to the ACE questionnaire, which examines different types of childhood trauma and how they affect a person’s health later in life. These experiences can include some of the following:

  • Emotional, physical and sexual abuse
  • Physical and emotional neglect
  • Living with a family suffering from mental illness, addiction or both
  • Living with family members who’ve been incarcerated
  • Witnessing domestic violence or violence outside of the home
  • Growing up in a war zone

There are any number of traumatic experiences not listed above that can raise a person’s score.

What Roles Does This Have on Addiction?

According to the Kaiser study, having an ACE score of 4 or more almost doubles the risk of cancer and heart disease and increases the likelihood of becoming an alcoholic by a staggering 700 percent.

Like others, Sumrok links adverse childhood experiences to post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), a condition that affects the amygdala, near the center of the brain, that can cause cycles of anxiety, depression and addiction among a number of other serious physical and mental health issues.

Dr. Sumrok’s approach to addiction treatment, like other qualified facilities, is straightforward; (1) treat people with respect; (2) help individuals address their adverse childhood experiences in one-on-one counseling or group therapy and, (3) if needed, use buprenorphine, a medication that helps people addicted to prescription painkillers and heroin curb their cravings while they detox and recover.

It is important to reiterate that early childhood trauma isn’t the only risk factor for addiction later in life.

Even people who had healthy childhoods can end up battling the disease of addiction. According to the Mayo Clinic, other risk factors include taking highly addictive drugs, such as opioid painkillers or succumbing to peer pressure.

The fact is addiction doesn’t discriminate between a healthy or unhealthy upbringing and getting treatment is critical.

The following infographic about adverse childhood experiences is from the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation and helps better illustrate ACEs.

Infographic: The Truth About ACEs


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