I went to a sparsely attended lecture about the Adverse Childhood Experiences Study, or ACE Study, in 2005 and it blew my mind. I think that it has the most far reaching implications of any medical study that I've read. It makes me feel hopeful, helpless and angry at God.
The lecture was at the American Academy of Family Practice Scientific Assembly. That year, it was in Washington, DC. There are 94,000 plus Family Practice doctors and residents and students in the US, the conference hall had 10,000 seats and the exhibition hall was massive. At the most recent assembly, there were more than 2600 exhibitors.
I try to attend the lectures numbered one through ten, because they are the chosen as the information that will change our practices, studies that change what we understand about medicine.
The ACE Study talk was among the top ten. Yet when I walked in, the attendees numbered in the hundreds, looking tiny in three joined conference rooms that could seat 10,000. The speaker was nervous, her image projected onto a giant screen behind her. My experience has been that doctors don't like to ask about child abuse and domestic violence: I thought, they don't want to go to lectures about it either.
The initial part of the study was done at Kaiser Permanante, from 1995-1997, with physicals of 17,000 adults. The adults were given a confidential survey about childhood maltreatment and family dysfunction. A simpler questionnaire is here, but it is not the one used in the study. Over 9000 adults completed the survey and were given a score of 0-7, their ACE score. This was a score for childhood psychological, physical or sexual abuse, violence against the mother, or living in a household with an adult who was a substance abuser, mentally ill or suicidal, or ever imprisoned.
Half of the adults reported a score over 2 and one fourth over 4. The scores were compared with the risk factors for "the leading causes of death in adult life". They found a graded relationship between the scores and each of the adult risk factors studied. That is, an increase in addiction, tobacco, alcohol and drugs. An increase in the likelihood of depression and suicide attempt. And an increase in heart disease, cancer, chronic lung disease, fractures and liver disease. The risk of alcoholism, drug addiction and depression was increased four to twelve times for a score of four or more.
The speaker said that the implications were that the brain was much more malleable in childhood than anyone realized. She said that much of the addictive behaviors and poor health behaviors of adults could be self-medication and self-care attempts as a result of the way the brain tried to learn to cope with this childhood damage.
I left the lecture stunned. How do I help heal an adult who is smoking if part of it is related to childhood events? From there I went to a lecture about ADHD, where the speaker said that MRIs and PET scans were showing that children with ADHD had brains that looked different from children without ADHD. I thought that speaker should have come to the other lecture. And I did not much like my ACE score, though it does explain some things.
I feel hopeful because we can't address a problem until we recognize it.
I feel helpless because I still do not know what to do. The World Health Organization has used the ACE Study in their Preventing Child Maltreatment monograph from 2006. But it is not very cheerful either: "There is thus an increased awareness of the problem of child maltreatment and growing pressure on governments to take preventive action. At the same time, the paucity of evidence for the effectiveness of interventions raises concerns that scarce resources may be wasted through investment in well-intentioned but unsystematic prevention efforts whose effectiveness is unproven and which may never be proven."
Do I do ACE scores on my patients? With the new Washington opiate law, we do a survey called the Opiate Risk Tool. It includes parental addiction in scoring the person's risk of opiate addiction. But not the rest of the ACE test. At this time, I don't do ACE scores on my adult patients. I don't like to do tests where I don't know what to do with the results. "Wow, you have a high score, you will probably die early," does not seem very helpful. But I remain hopeful that knowledge can lead to change. And it makes me more gentle with my smoking patients, my addicted patients, the depressed, the heart patient who will not exercise.
I am angry at God, because it seems as if the sins of the fathers ARE visited upon the children. It is the most vulnerable suffering children who are most damaged. That does not seem fair. It makes me cry. I would rather go to hell then to the heaven of a God who organized this. I stand with the Bodhisattva, who will not leave until every sufferer is healed.