My grandfather had a heart attack at age 39. Found slumped over the steering wheel of their police car, his partner pushed him to the passenger side and sped to the hospital. Afterward, my grandfather turned in his badge; he was advised to avoid stressful situations if he wanted to live to see my father grow up.
Dr. Nadine Burke Harris would not be surprised that my grandfather had a heart attack. Family stories lead me to guess that Pop experienced several Adverse Childhood Experiences (ACEs). The seminal study suggests most people (64 percent) have at least one ACE; 12 percent of the population has an ACE score of four. Having an ACE score of four nearly doubles the risk of heart disease and cancer. It increases the likelihood of becoming an alcoholic by 700 percent and the risk of attempted suicide by 1200 percent (see acestoohigh.com for the ACE test and more). Because they can lead to such serious and identifiable health problems, Dr. Harris advocates for universal screening for adverse childhood experiences. What if my Pop’s doctor had known he was at double the risk of heart disease? Might he have taken a closer listen to his ticker? Or—and this one is really interesting—might he have talked to my grandfather about reducing his stress load before he had a heart attack? What might have happened if his doctor determined that my grandfather’s body produced an exaggerated stress response because he was so often in “fight or flight” mode as a young boy? What might have happened if my Pop had been prescribed counseling to learn strategies to work with his body to manage stress? What if his teacher had known to encourage him to use those strategies?
Children who experience significant adversity but have a loving adult who serves as a buffer are less likely to develop an exaggerated stress response and have their future health impacted. Furthermore, “In some people, adversity can foster perseverance, deepen empathy, (and) strengthen the resolve to protect,” writes Harris. ACEs are not all bad, and they are certainly part of who we are. Remember that roughly 64 percent of us have at least one ACE (it’s likely higher in communities living in poverty). All this is to say, even if you don’t have an ACE, chances are decent your spouse or your best friend does. In nearly any circle, there are friends who experienced significant childhood adversity. ACEs are everyone’s problem. ACEs are not their problem.
I have lived and worked in many communities: communities of rich and poor, majority and minority, immigrant and we’ve-been-here-so-long-we-don’t-know-how-we-got-here. Everyone wants to do right by his or her kids. Those of us who experienced significant childhood adversity may have extra challenges as parents and grandparents.
Dr. Harris’ experience, and mine, is that folks from more privileged backgrounds keep our adversity pretty quiet. Alcoholism, drug use and mental illness are often handled quietly within the family, within the walls of the house. What if people knew? Jobs, friendships and standing in the community could be lost. But the support of health providers and personal allies along with a healthy lifestyle may foster healing. There isn’t a pill to fix childhood trauma or how your body responds to toxic stress, but we know that the basics are important—sleep, exercise, nutrition, mindfulness, mental health and healthy relationships.
I encourage all of us to learn more. Dr. Harris will be speaking at Campbell Hall at UCSB on Monday, April 16, at 7 p.m. (it’s free and a simulcast to overflow seating will be available). I also highly recommend her book, “The Deepest Well.” It’s a thought- and emotion-provoking read. I wish my Pop and his doctor had been able to read it.