Health >> Childhood Health Risks

Childhood Health Risks:  Summary & Data Highlights

Abuse and family dysfunction in childhood are linked to obesity and other health outcomes in adulthood.

During childhood, frequent or extended exposure to toxic stressors – such as abuse, neglect, and family dysfunction – can impair brain development, with potentially lifelong consequences for health and wellbeing.  Similarly, certain attitudes and preferences in adolescence can predict whether teens are likely to engage in unhealthy or delinquent behaviors. 

In a telephone survey, King County adults were asked to think back to the years before they were 18 and report their exposure to any of 8 categories of adverse childhood experiences (ACEs).  ACE scores ranged from 0 to 8; scores of 0-3 were considered “low;” those of 4 and above were “high.”  To facilitate demographic comparisons, 3 years of data were averaged.

Adverse childhood experiences included:

  • Sexual abuse
  • Verbal abuse
  • Physical abuse
  • Witness of domestic violence
  • Parents separated or divorced
  • Substance-abusing household member
  • Household member in prison
  • Mentally ill household member

Adverse childhood experiences (ACEs) in King County were fairly common.

  • More than 60% of King County adults reported at least 1 ACE.
  • Overall, 14% of King County adults reported 4 or more ACEs (the criterion for “high ACE number”).

The frequency with which adults reported a high number of adverse childhood experiences varied by region.

  • High ACE scores were more common among South Region adults than among adults in East Region, North Region, and King County overall.
  • East Region adults were less likely to have high ACE scores than adults in King County overall.

Reporting 4 or more adverse childhood experiences was associated with the following health behaviors and outcomes among King County adults:

  • Adult obesity: 30% of adults with high ACE score were obese vs. 20% of those with low ACE scores.
  • Current smoker: 21% vs. 9% of those reporting low ACE scores.
  • Excessive drinking: 25% vs. 18% of those reporting low ACE scores.
  • Fair or poor health: 17% vs. 9% of those reporting low ACE scores.

King County residents reporting  4 or more adverse childhood experiences were over-represented among adults who …

King County residents reporting 4 or more adverse childhood experiences were under-represented among:

Damage from adverse childhood experiences can be reduced by …

  • … ensuring that young children have relationships with supportive adults who care about them and respond to their needs.
  • … providing emotional and psychological support to parents.
  • … reducing exposure to recurrent abuse, neglect, and family dysfunction or mental illness.
  • (See Notes & Sources for more information.)

Risk and protective factors are attitudes, beliefs, and elements of the social environment that predict adolescent problem behaviors such as violence, delinquency, and use of alcohol, tobacco, or drugs.  In a 2010 survey of King County 8th, 10th, and 12th graders,

  • The average number of risk factors was higher for South Region teens than for East Region teens. 
  • The average numbers of protective factors for North and East Regions teens were higher than those for Seattle, South Region, and the county as a whole. 

"Adverse childhood experiences, or ACEs, are broadly defined as incidents during childhood that harm social, cognitive and emotional functioning. Frequent or prolonged exposure to such events creates toxic stress that damages the architecture of the developing brain."
Iowa Family Child and Policy Center, 2012