Stress and trauma in childhood tend to lead to anxiety and poor health in adulthood, according to Minnesota's first-ever survey of adults about "adverse experiences" in their youth.
More than half of the 13,520 Minnesotans reported at least one traumatic experience in their childhood, including physical abuse, parental divorce or the incarceration of a household member. Those who reported multiple events had higher rates of chronic diseases such as asthma and mental disorders such as depression.
"They're at the heart of many of the leading causes of death and disability," said Dr. David McCollum, who works in the injury prevention unit of the Minnesota Department of Health.
The department released the data Monday, making Minnesota the 18th state to survey adults about youth trauma. The survey builds on research by the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention showing that traumatic events in childhood can cause toxic levels of stress that actually alter children's brain chemistry. Other research has correlated such childhood events with suicide, unintended pregnancies, illicit drug use and sexually transmitted diseases.
"Stress becomes hard-wired in the body, and that is expressed throughout life," said Laura Porter, former director of the Washington State Family Policy Council. Her state was among the first to study the relationships.
Verbal abuse was the most common among the nine categories of childhood events in the survey, followed by living with someone who has a drinking problem. One in 10 respondents reported sexual abuse in childhood and one in seven reported physical abuse. McCollum said the type of events didn't matter; the higher the number, the more likely they were to correlate with problems in adulthood.
One in four Minnesotans in the survey reported four or more adverse experiences. They were twice as likely to be chronic drinkers and at least five times as likely to suffer anxiety.
The research doesn't prove that childhood traumas cause adulthood problems, only that there is a statistical relationship. These experiences also had a profound link to overall well-being, said the Health Department's Pete Rode, and were associated with a higher likelihood of dropping out of high school, being unemployed or worrying about paying for rent and food.
Research on the impact of childhood experiences began in the 1990s with a California doctor who wondered why some adults were dropping out of his otherwise successful weight-loss program. A review of medical records showed strong correlation with problems in childhood.
Porter said the research in Washington gave parents a new appreciation of the power of childhood experiences. Some parents revamped the way they treated their children; neighbors often showed more compassion to people with traumatic upbringings.
One concrete change in Washington was alternative sentencing for mothers convicted of nonviolent crimes, so they could raise their children and prevent the severe stress of separation.
Minnesota's report recommended no such specific changes. It urged a similar effort to raise public awareness, along with financial and other resources to deal with the lingering problems of childhood trauma.
McCollum said the findings do not mean that someone has an unchangeable "destiny" just because of problems in youth. It does mean the state needs to understand the risk factors and help children and adults cope, he said. People can't just say, "Time will heal things. Just put it behind you. Pull yourselves up by your bootstraps," he said. "It doesn't work."
Jeremy Olson 612-673-7744