Skip to content
Link copied to clipboard

Our Adult Bodies Hold onto Childhood Pain (Part 1)

Little Sally and Jane are both white and middle class. By 18, Jane is three times more likely to get heart disease or an STD. Why?

This was the first post by Jonathan Purtle on a recurring topic. Later posts:

By Jonathan Purtle

We like to think that time heals all wounds, but the Adverse Childhood Experiences (ACE) Study revealed that we carry our history in our bodies—like it or not.

Two children: let's call them Sally and Jane. Both white, middle class, and with well-educated parents.  Both are going to graduate college, get well paying jobs, and have unfettered access to health care for the entirety of their adult lives.

At her 18th birthday, however, Jane is about seven times more likely than Sally to have a substance abuse problem, over three times more likely to get ischemic heart disease, more than twice as likely to be a heavy smoker, and three times as likely to acquire a sexually transmitted disease.  And the list goes on …

Why is Jane at such higher risk?

Well, Jane's mother was clinically depressed and neglected her; her father was an alcoholic and physically abusive at times; her brother went to jail and her parents got divorced—all by the time she was 18.

Traumatic experiences in childhood substantially increase risk for unhealthy behaviors and adverse health outcomes later in life.  This is more than just a theory. These are the findings that emerged from the lives of over 17,000 participants of the ACE Study—one of the most important public health studies ever conducted, but also one of the most unsettling.

Turn back the clock to the mid-1980s in San Diego, Calif.  The sun is shining, A Flock of Seagulls is on the radio, and Dr. Vincent Felitti is scratching his head trying to figure out why the most successful patients in a weight loss program keep dropping out. He digs a little deeper and discovers that these patients experienced a great deal of psychological trauma when they were kids.

Felitti has a hunch that overeating and being overweight is unconsciously serving to protect them from the emotional pain of unaddressed childhood trauma; losing weight threatened this protective strategy.

How that hunch turned into a major research study – and the findings that astound people when they hear about them – will be the subject of my next two posts.

This mini-series begins the exploration of a topic – trauma  and health – that I will return to periodically. Upcoming posts will examine issues like urban violence, the "science of trauma," and what people in Philadelphia are doing to address these issues.

Read more about The Public's Health.