Adverse Childhood Experiences Significantly Impact Physical and Mental Health

The social environments we grow up in are very important to our health and happiness as adults. Most Americans (67%) say they went through at least one traumatic event when they were young. A new study using phenome-wide association analyses shows that these events have a big effect on our health risks as adults.

Obesity and chronic pain are physical conditions that are impacted, but mental illnesses like bipolar disorder, substance abuse, post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), and depression exhibit the strongest correlation.

The study, led by scientists from the Desert Research Institute (DRI) and the University of Nevada, Reno, involved more than 16,000 people. One of the most well-known genomic studies in the country, the Healthy Nevada Project, powered by Renown Health, recruited volunteers from the Reno area for the study.

Health Outcomes of Childhood Trauma

Participants were asked about their social environments before the age of 18, including emotional, physical, or sexual mistreatment, neglect, and substance abuse in the home. To advance previous studies on how childhood traumas affect health outcomes, the researchers combined this data with anonymized medical records.

The majority of participants (66%) remembered experiencing at least one type of trauma, and 24% said they had more than four. Women and people of African-American and Latinx descent reported more traumatic experiences than men and people of European ancestry, but people in low-income households were the most affected.

Thirteen mental illnesses, including mood disorders, schizophrenia, anxiety disorders, depression, PTSD, eating disorders, and substance abuse, had the most statistically significant associations.

Each type of childhood abuse reported increased a participant’s risk of PTSD by 47%. Each cumulative trauma increased one’s risk of attempting suicide by 33%.

Complex Problem

Although the study is based in Nevada, which has a high rate of adults with mental illness and limited access to care, the researchers note that it provides a window into deeply rooted public health issues across the country.

According to the CDC, childhood trauma is linked to at least five of the top ten leading causes of death. Adverse childhood experience refers to being exposed to physical, sexual, or psychological violence as a child, or witnessing potentially traumatic experiences in the home, such as intimate partner violence, mental illness, or substance abuse. It also includes physical and emotional neglect, divorce, household dysfunction, substance abuse and mental illness in the home.

“Combatting the prevalence of childhood traumas is a complex problem. Personal experiences with neglect and abuse are more challenging to address, but many of the underlying issues can be tackled at the community level, like food insecurity and poverty,”

said co-lead author Karen Schlauch, Ph.D., a bioinformatics researcher at DRI.

Community-based Intervention

Schlauch says that the next focus of research will be on figuring out how childhood traumas may be connected to particular traits like impulsivity, a trait that is highly valued in Nevada’s gambling communities, in addition to advancing our knowledge of how early social environments affect our health.

The study team is investigating how to use the Healthy Nevada Project database to guide community-based interventions as they deepen their analysis of the health effects of early-life adversity.

“In order to address the devastating impacts of early-life adversity on local population health and inequities, we must focus on the dominant social and behavioural mechanisms affecting Nevadans. Beyond how population needs drive our research, we are partnering with community-based organizations to promote evidence-based interventions across individual, community, and state levels,”

said co-author Stephanie Koning, Ph.D., an assistant professor at the School of Public Health at the University of Nevada, Reno.

Reference: Schlauch KA, Read RW, Koning SM, Neveux I and Grzymski JJ (2022) Using phenome-wide association studies and the SF-12 quality of life metric to identify profound consequences of adverse childhood experiences on adult mental and physical health in a Northern Nevadan population. Front. Psychiatry 13:984366