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How the ACE Study Changed Everything: the relationship between childhood experiences and illnesses

Updated: Feb 23

In 1995, an American study came out that caused a shockwave in the medical, mental health, and social services fields. The foundation of what the American healthcare system considered the basis of illness was turned on its head. Yet, many adults today have never heard of this study much less understood its massive implications upon their health and quality of life.

If you hope to make 2023 a year of growth, healing, or self-improvement, the most powerful foundation you could lay for your work is knowing your ACE score. Here is why:

Adulthood health is built on the foundation of whatever your brain experienced during childhood. This means that a person’s susceptibility to chronic disease, psychological health, and emotional and behavioral resilience all hinge on whether or not you felt safe as a child.

It turns out that while sticks and stones may in fact break your bones, some words can sabotage the fabric of your DNA and set you up for a lifetime of chronic illness and mental health issues. It doesn't roll off the tongue the same way as the original saying, but it’s more accurate. Let’s unpack the evidence that supports such a bold claim:

The ACE Study was conducted between 1995 and 1997 by Dr. Vincent Felitti with Kaiser Permanente and Robert Anda with the Center for Disease Control. More than 17,000 adults were surveyed about their traumatic childhood experiences in an attempt to discover hidden correlations between early trauma and life-long health and psychological impairments.

The study focused on specific household dysfunctions such as:

  • Emotional and verbal abuse

  • Physical abuse

  • Emotional and physical neglect

  • Sexual abuse

  • Parental incarceration

  • Substance abuse

  • Domestic violence

  • Caregiver mental illness

Each traumatic event was assigned a value to produce a score between 0-10.


The survey data was then correlated with documented long-term health outcomes and self-reports of well-being. The results, which were published in the American Journal of Preventive Medicine, revealed a staggering pattern: there is a powerful relationship between the breadth of exposure to family dysfunction and adversity during childhood and multiple risk factors for several of the leading causes of death in adults. These leading causes include heart disease, auto-immune disease, mental illness, and cancer.