Education

What’s your ACES score?

Studies point to the link between "toxic stress" and early brain development

NOTE: The impact of chronic stress — caused by neglect, abuse, or simply the stress of living in poverty — has a physical effect on a child’s brain. Experts call it “toxic stress” and in July 2017, more research, reported here, and here, and attention was drawn to the growing body of research about the way living with continuous high levels of stress changes — for the worse — a child’s brain. Below is a post we first published in 2016 about the topic, which includes a chart used in the ACES study to evaluate a person’s risk for toxic stress.

There is a growing body of research that cites the impact that traumatic events can have on young children — effects that last a lifetime.

The Center for the Developing Child at Harvard University is one of the voices speaking about “adverse childhood experiences” and how those experiences hurt the brains of young children. You can read more about the research Harvard cites here.

Overall, science is showing the link between “toxic stress” — repeated, frequent exposure of a young, developing brain to stress — damages that child’s ability to learn and process information throughout the rest of that baby’s life.

How do you measure something like that?

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and Kaiser Permanente conducted the ACES study from 1995 to 1997. It was one of the largest studies of the health and wellness effects of childhood abuse and neglect later in life. Learn more about the original study here.

From it was developed the ACES questionnaire, which was used to gather data for the study. In general, the higher a person’s score on the questionnaire, the greater the risk later in life he or she faces for adverse health outcomes.

The original study —and those that have followed it, including this one in Australia — focus on the impact that child abuse has on the victim’s physical and emotional health decades later. An August 2013 study in the journal Science noted that poverty itself can cause enough stress to impact decisions and impact brain function.

Researchers at Harvard and elsewhere are beginning to consider the impact that “toxic stress” has on brain development and on the way children learn — or are unable to learn — as they grow up. Here’s a primer on the topic.

The most important thing to remember is that the ACE score is meant as a guideline. 

Adverse Childhood Experiences survey sample.

Adverse Childhood Experiences survey sample.

It’s important to note that the effects of this stress can be counteracted by many things, including a good relationship with a strong, loving parent. That’s a good guide for where we can start to helping all of our children make up the ground they may be losing before they even get to the schoolhouse door.