The ACE Study–link between autoimmune diseases, chronic stress and childhood trauma?

According to the landmark ACE Study, Adverse Childhood Experiences, (, the connection is unmistakable. In 1992, doctors at Kaiser Hospital in San Diego, CA and the federal Centers for Disease Control began a collaborative and still on-going study that would eventually involve over 17,000 people in the Wellness Program at Kaiser and offer solid evidence of the connection between unhealed childhood trauma and chronic, life-threatening illness in adulthood.

The study began when the head of Kaiser’s preventive medicine dept, Dr. Vincent Felitti, began to investigate why patients were dropping out of his successful weight-loss program. What he found stunned him, because in over 30 years of medical practice, he had only dealt with two cases of incest and thought that childhood sexual abuse was rare. The ACE Study showed otherwise.

The ACE study only gathered data on life-threatening diseases, but a later study by Dr. Felitti and several other researchers, Cumulative Childhood Stress and Autoimmune Diseases in Adults, concluded “childhood traumatic stress increased the likelihood of hospitalization with a diagnosed autoimmune disease decades into adulthood. These findings are consistent with recent biological studies on the impact of early life stress on subsequent inflammatory responses.”

There is evidence from animal studies that shows many diseases show up months or years after a period of extreme stress: the death of a spouse or parent, being in an abusive marriage or job, a divorce, etc. In some sensitive people, a single shocking life event such as a brush with death can overwhelm the nervous system and jumpstart an autoimmune reaction.

After sifting through the data from 17,000 extensive questionnaires, the researchers developed the following short quiz, reprinted here from the web site. Scoring is on a graded scale; the higher your score, the greater your exposure to childhood trauma, and the greater your chances of developing life-threatening illness in adulthood.

Finding Your ACE Score

While you were growing up, during your first 18 years of life:


1. Did a parent or other adult in the household often or very often…

Swear at you, insult you, put you down, or humiliate you?


Act in a way that made you afraid that you might be physically hurt?

Yes No If yes enter 1 ________

2. Did a parent or other adult in the household often or very often…

Push, grab, slap, or throw something at you?


Ever hit you so hard that you had marks or were injured?

Yes No If yes enter 1 ________

3. Did an adult or person at least 5 years older than you ever…

Touch or fondle you or have you touch their body in a sexual way?


Attempt or actually have oral, anal, or vaginal intercourse with you?

Yes No If yes enter 1 ________

4. Did you often or very often feel that …

No one in your family loved you or thought you were important or special?


Your family didn’t look out for each other, feel close to each other, or support each other?

Yes No If yes enter 1 ________

5. Did you often or very often feel that …

You didn’t have enough to eat, had to wear dirty clothes, and had no one to protect you?


Your parents were too drunk or high to take care of you or take you to the doctor if you needed


Yes No If yes enter 1 ________

6. Were your parents ever separated or divorced?

Yes No If yes enter 1 ________

7. Was your mother or stepmother:

Often or very often pushed, grabbed, slapped, or had something thrown at her?


Sometimes, often, or very often kicked, bitten, hit with a fist, or hit with something hard?


Ever repeatedly hit at least a few minutes or threatened with a gun or knife?

Yes No If yes enter 1 ________

8. Did you live with anyone who was a problem drinker or alcoholic or who used street drugs?

Yes No If yes enter 1 ________

9. Was a household member depressed or mentally ill, or did a household member attempt suicide?

Yes No If yes enter 1 ________

10. Did a household member go to prison?

Yes No If yes enter 1 _______

Now add up your “Yes” answers: _______ This is your ACE Score.

Part 2 of this 4-part series will discuss an arthritis case history and how to use a ”trauma timeline” and the language of metaphor to gain insights into possible trauma related roots of your autoimmune disease and/or chronic pain.

One comment on “The ACE Study–link between autoimmune diseases, chronic stress and childhood trauma?

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