Wednesday, March 15, 2017

What's your ACE score?

Jesus’ ministry could be boiled down to two elements— teaching people
to love each other, and healing the sick through the love of God.
            Two thousand years later, science has caught up with Jesus.
In 1998, a seminal study by the Center for Disease Control established a strong causal connection between a lack of properly executed love from caregivers during childhood, and incidences of serious illness later in life.
The Adverse Childhood Experiences (ACEs) study, published in the Journal of Preventative Medicine, was conducted by giving a questionnaire about adverse childhood experiences to 17,000 mostly white, middle to upper-middle class people in San Diego. Various categories of adverse childhood experiences were studied: physical, sexual or psychological abuse; violence against the mother in the home; and living with household members who were substance abusers, mentally ill, suicidal, or ever imprisoned. Researchers found that more than half the respondents to the questionnaire had at least one childhood exposure to one of these seriously adverse experiences, and one-fourth reported two or more. When they studied the health of participants, they found that participants with higher ACEs scores had correspondingly higher incidences of chronic autoimmune illnesses, liver disease, alcoholism and depression.
Subsequent studies on adverse childhood experiences have corroborated the findings, showing that in addition, a higher ACEs score correlates to higher incidences of obesity, diabetes, stroke, some types of cancers and some types of heart disease. One a scale of one to ten, where each adverse childhood experience equals one point, having an ACEs score of four or more increases the risk of emphysema or chronic bronchitis by nearly 400 percent and suicide by 1200 percent. People with an ACEs score of six or higher are at risk for an average 20-year shortened lifespan. Higher ACEs scores also correspond with social problems --  higher rates of drug use, teen pregnancy, smoking, being a victim of rape and perpetuating domestic violence. Children with high ACEs scores are prone to rage and outbursts in school, often have trouble paying attention, get lower grades and are more likely to fail a grade and drop out.
Brain research is demonstrating what Jesus understood when he gave us the command to love-- that the experience of trauma (of being hurt, rather than loved) has a physical effect on the body. When children are traumatized, their bodies respond in a physical way, even into adulthood. Prolonged activation of the stress response systems disrupts the development of brain architecture and other organ systems, and increases the risk for both physical and mental illness.

With only a third of the US population having an ACEs score of zero, indicating no significant trauma, we can begin to understand that much of society’s troubles may have its roots in unhealed childhood trauma. Most people, regardless of ethnicity, religion or socio-economic status, carry an invisible cross of at least one or two significantly painful parts to their childhood. And 13% of people walk around with the toxic stress caused by four or more adverse childhood experiences.

            We are just 19 years out from the publication of the ACEs study—in the world of science, 19 years is a short time. It’s barely enough time to get the word out about the study’s results. But in the past 19 years, in response to the ACEs study, research has emerged on resilience. Children who have experienced adversity in childhood but who go on to develop resilience have better outcomes. How do we build resilience? The research points to one-on-one connections. When a person with a high ACEs score has a relationship with someone who offers him or her understanding and compassion, a bit of resilience is born. Those people with high ACEs scores whose parents struggle but who are fortunate enough to have strong one-on-one connections with teachers, healthy friends, relatives, coaches, mentors or pastors, fare the best.
            Jesus’ ministry of healing was all about one-on-one connections based on understanding and compassion. He sat with people; he touched them; he reacted with compassion and love for them. He even wept with love. And then he healed them.
            We are offered the same opportunity as Jesus to be healers. During our day, everyone we encounter (including ourselves) has an ACEs score ranging from 0 to 10 —everyone has a story of childhood. Every interaction we have with another is an opportunity to build that person’s resilience. Every action that includes understanding and a belief in the good of another can bring about healing. And that goes for showing compassion and understanding toward ourselves, as well. Those who have high ACEs scores, but who learn self-compassion, also build resilience.
Those around us who we find most challenging to love may have a reason for being so prickly-- childhood trauma can wrap itself in anger, as a form of protection. And when offered healing and compassion, these hurting folks may not find the wherewithal to respond with gratitude. When Jesus healed the 10 lepers, only one came back to say thanks.
            In the next decade, public health practices may shift in response to the ACEs study and what it predicts. Further study may crystalize best practices and techniques for doctors, mental health professionals, teachers and those in social service. We, as a society, may learn ways to foster large-scale resilience development; we may even discover opportunities to reach families early to lower ACEs scores from the beginning. But even as this happens, true resilience will still be built one person at a time, in moments when that person feels understood, loved and recognized.
            For us, as followers of Christ, the ACEs study and the follow-up research on resilience intensifies what we already know. Our call has always been to love and to heal. And now we have the data to prove why it’s important.