The science

When exposed to stressful situations the “fight, flight or freeze” response floods our brain with corticotrophin-releasing hormones (CRH), which usually forms part of a normal and protective response that subsides once the stressful situation passes. However, when repeatedly exposed to ACEs, CRH is continually produced by the brain, which results in the child remaining permanently in this heightened state of alert and unable to return to their natural relaxed and recovered state. Children and young people who are exposed to ACEs therefore have increased – and sustained –levels of stress. In this heightened neurological state a young person is unable to think rationally and it is physiologically impossible for them to learn.
Research demonstrating that ACEs can negatively affect lifelong mental and physical health by disrupting brain and organ development and by damaging the body’s system for defending against diseases. The more ACEs a child experiences, the greater the chance of health and/or social problems in later life.

ACEs research shows that there is a strong dose-response relationship between ACEs and poor physical and mental health, chronic disease (such as type II diabetes, chronic obstructive pulmonary disease; heart disease; cancer), increased levels of violence, and lower academic success both in childhood and adulthood.

Potential Outcomes

Epidemiological evidence from Blackburn with Darwen (2012) showed that there was increased risk (adjusted odds ratio) of having health and social problems in adulthood for those individuals who had experienced four or more ACEs, compared to those with no ACEs. Individuals with four or more ACEs were:

  • 4.5 times more likely to have become pregnant or got somebody pregnant under 18 years of age
  • 30.6 times more likely to have had a sexually transmitted infection (STI)
  • 1.8 times more likely to be morbidly obese
  • 2.3 times more likely to have liver or digestive disease
  • 1.5 times more likely to have stayed overnight in hospital in the last 12 months
  • 3.7 times more likely to a regular heavy drinker
  • 3.9 times more likely to be a current smoker
  • 9.7 times more likely to be a heroin or crack user
  • 5.2 times more likely to have been hit in the last 12 months
  • 7.9 times more likely to have hit someone in the last 12 months
  • 8.8 times more likely to have been in prison or cells