The ABCs of ACEs

Adverse childhood experiences (ACEs) can significantly affect individuals and communities. By raising awareness, building resilience and improving community impact, we can create a better future.

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According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), adverse childhood experiences, or ACEs, are potentially traumatic events that occur in childhood. They can include things like experiencing violence, abuse or neglect, and having a parent with mental health or substance use issues. ACEs can have long-lasting impacts on health and social well-being. Research from the CDC shows that the more ACEs that someone experiences, the greater their risk for poor health outcomes such as heart disease, diabetes and depression.

As public health initiatives stress the importance of preventing ACEs, communities and individuals are often left wondering what to do in response to the growing concern over the impacts of ACEs. With an increasing amount of information available, starting with the basics is a good place to begin. It can be helpful to remember the ABCs of ACEs:

  • Awareness of ACEs.
  • Building resilience in individuals, families and communities.
  • Community impact when we work together to prevent ACEs.

Awareness of ACEs

Prevention begins with awareness. It is important to know that ACEs are prevalent and common among all populations, although some populations are more vulnerable than others. The CDC estimates that:

  • 64% of U.S. adults reported they had experienced at least one type of ACE before age 18.
  • Nearly one in six people reported they had experienced four or more types of ACEs.

Increase your awareness by learning more about ACEs and their potential impact. One way to learn more is to attend a community ACEs workshop or a virtual workshop.  If there is not a workshop available, help organize one for your community. When we bring awareness to a problem such as ACEs, communities can take action to prevent them and mitigate their impacts.

Building Resilience

The American Psychological Association defines resilience as the ability to adapt well in the face of hard times. Positive childhood experiences increase protective factors, which are the strengths, skills and relationships that reduce the impact of ACEs. Protective factors bolster resilience so that when adversity does come, children and families have a better ability to handle stress.

The CDC notes that involved caregivers, positive role models, routines and praise can help create positive childhood experiences. Communities can support programs and systems that lead to stronger families, like affordable housing, quality early childhood education and flexible work arrangements. Supporting foundational programs and community services helps children and families thrive and leads to a ripple effect of positive outcomes.     

Community Impact

Healthy communities grow healthy children and families. Dr. Rob Anda, co-principal investigator of the landmark ACE Study, notes that “what is predictable is preventable” in this brief informational video on ACEs. Preventing ACEs could help lessen the rising rates of many chronic health conditions reported today. According to the CDC, preventing ACEs could lead to a:

  • 16% reduction in the number of adults with kidney disease.
  • 24-27% reduction in the number of adults with respiratory problems such as asthma and chronic obstructive pulmonary disease.
  • 44% reduction in the number of adults with depression.

With fewer chronic health conditions, there is potential to lessen the strain on the healthcare system and improve health and well-being across the lifespan for families and communities.

While it is important to learn the ABCs of ACEs, it is helpful to keep in mind that ACEs are not deterministic.  Even if a person experiences an adverse childhood experience, it does not mean that they will experience negative health outcomes due to the ACE. By keeping the ABCs of ACEs in mind, we can all play a role to help prevent ACEs and their potential impacts now and for generations to come.

Michigan State University Extension offers educational programming on an array of health and social-emotional well-being topics such as ACEs, Stress Less with Mindfulness, Mental Health First Aid, Chronic Disease PATH (Personal Action Towards Health) and Sleep Education for Everyone (SLEEP). For more information on upcoming programs, please visit MSU Extension's Healthy Relationships website. 

If you or someone you know needs immediate mental health support, help is available. Call or text 988 or chat

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