Childhood Trauma Impairs Both Physical and Mental Health
Adult risk for physical and mental disorders increases with childhood trauma.
Posted December 28, 2022 | Reviewed by Vanessa Lancaster
- A greater risk of adult physical and mental health problems has long been correlated with adversity and trauma during childhood.
- Adverse childhood experiences (ACEs) are traumatic events and unsafe environments occurring for children before age 18.
- A new study shows that ACEs significantly adversely impact adult mental health, notably PTSD, substance abuse, and depression.
- There was a direct correlation between the number of ACEs subjects reported and the percentage of mental disorders evidenced in participants.
A greater risk of adult physical and mental health problems has long been correlated with adversity and trauma during childhood. Adverse childhood experiences (ACEs) are defined as traumatic events and unsafe environments occurring for children before the age of 18. ACEs include the incidence of emotional, physical, and sexual maltreatment, neglect, substance abuse within the household, mental illness in the household, violence, and incarceration of a household member.1
Numerous national studies indicate the seriousness of ACEs, with prevalence as high as 67 percent of adults experiencing at least one ACE and 16 percent experiencing at least four ACEs. The CDC reports that at least five of the top 10 leading causes of death are associated with ACEs.2
A new study published in October 2022 in the journal Frontiers in Psychiatry further demonstrates that these experiences have significant impacts on adult physical and mental health. Physical illnesses, such as obesity, chronic pain, and migraines, are affected, but mental disorders showed the most significant association, including post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), substance abuse, and depression.3
Researchers at the Center for Genomic Medicine, DRI and the University of Nevada, Reno, studied more than 16,000 people from northern Nevada who volunteered as part of the Healthy Nevada Project. Participants answered questions about their home/social environments before age 18, including experiences with emotional, physical, or sexual mistreatment, neglect, and substance abuse in the household. The researchers combined this information with anonymized medical records to build on existing research about how childhood trauma affects a range of health outcomes.
Nearly two-thirds (66 percent) of participants reported at least one form of trauma, and almost one-quarter (24 percent) reported experiencing more than four. Women reported a higher prevalence of traumatic experiences than men, as did people of African American and Latinx descent compared with those with European ancestry—but people in low-income households were the most severely affected.
More Trauma Equals More Mental Health Challenges
Results indicated that a variety of physical illnesses, including obesity, chronic pain, and migraine, were associated with ACEs, however many mental health disorders correlated even more highly with ACEs—with 13 showing the most statistically significant associations, including mood disorders, depression, PTSD, anxiety disorders, eating disorders, schizophrenia, and substance use disorders. For every reported type of abuse experienced in childhood, a participant's risk for PTSD increased by 47 percent. Each cumulative trauma also increased one's risk of making a suicide attempt by 33 percent.
There was a direct correlation between the number of ACEs subjects reported and the percentage of mental disorders evidenced in participants. In other words, the more ACEs someone had experienced, the greater the likelihood of serious mental health challenges.
The percentage of participants demonstrating these mental health disorders significantly increased with each additional ACE reported. Moreover, participants who reported fewer adverse childhood events experienced a higher quality of life, mentally as well as physically. While this study was based in Nevada, its size and scope provide a window into important national public health issues.
Healing From Trauma
There are a variety of pathways to recovery from trauma, and what happened to you in the past does not have the final say in who you become, the kind of life you live, or the quality of that life. For some people, trauma and its effects can heal on their own after a period of time. For others, the healing process may require professional treatment. Recovery from trauma requires access to the conditions that promote healing. If an individual who has experienced trauma doesn’t have access to recovery-supportive conditions, the effects of trauma may continue indefinitely and may even worsen.
Recovering from trauma is a highly individualized process that takes place over time, not overnight. What’s most important is finding the type and level of resource(s)—be they self-help, mutual-aid, professional, or a combination thereof—that best fits your needs and can most effectively facilitate your healing.
Copyright 2022 Dan Mager, MSW
 Felitti VJ, Anda RF, Nordenberg D, Williamson DF, Spitz AM, Edwards V, et al. Relationship of childhood abuse and household dysfunction to many of the leading causes of death in adults. The adverse childhood experiences (ACE) Study. Am J Prev Med. (1998) 14:245–58. doi: 10.1016/s0749-3797(98)00017-8
 Merrick MT, Ford DC, Ports KA, Guinn AS, Chen J, Klevens J, et al. Vital signs: estimated proportion of adult health problems attributable to adverse childhood experiences and implications for prevention - 25 States, 2015-2017. MMWR Morb Mortal Wkly Rep. (2019) 68:999–1005. doi: 10.15585/mmwr.mm6844e1
 Schlauch Karen A, Read Robert W, Koning Stephonie M, Neveux Iva, Grzymski. Joseph J. 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. Frontiers in Psychiatry, 2022; 13 DOI: 10.3389/fpsyt.2022.984366