When people age, we sometimes see things that we are not expecting. One of the things that we don't expect to see is just how much their childhood experiences affect who they are as a senior adult. Despite people saying things like, “oh, well, children are resilient” or “they'll bounce back”, mounting evidence suggests that it is simply not true. Children may appear to 'bounce back', but psychological studies are now discovering that childhood experiences play a large role in the health of aging adults.
First, what are some of the things that are considered “Adverse Childhood Experiences” according to psychologists? The list below is not complete. The more of these experiences that a child has, the more prevalent mental and physical health risks become, even as they age. If many of these are present in a child's life, their risk levels are compounded for a number of illnesses. Some of the most common adverse childhood experiences are:
-low socioeconomic status
-substance use within household
-mental illness within household
-incarceration of parent
The problems created by these experiences are two-fold. There is the experience itself that the person must deal with. They have to find a way out of the situation, if it's possible to do so, but then throughout the rest of their lives, even into elderly adulthood, they must deal with the memories, emotions, behaviors and physical damage that those incidents have forced them to live with. All of that has a cumulative effect on their mental, emotional & even physical health. Studies from New Zealand indicate that the government there is looking into the long-term health effects of these experiences in hopes of helping to lower the economic consequences on their health care system. (1) In America it is being studied as they follow people who are leaving the foster care system & watch them age in order to find out how these experiences help determine the outcomes of their lives. (2)
Some of the most common physical risks that have been found in the studies of aging adults with ACE's include: depression, inflammation (which can affect a large number systems in the body, including cardio-vascular system), obesity, hormonal imbalances, insulin resistance, neurodegeneration, etc. In general, according to the studies done so far, the larger number of ACE's that a person has, the more physical risks the person will have & those risks are amplified by the aging process rather than diminished.
The important thing for those who work with aging adults to know is that there are genuine, long-term health effects because of these types of experiences, no matter the length of time that has lapsed since their occurrence. Mental health intervention may be very necessary in order to help overcome some of the adverse risks. At the least, a deep sense of caring & understanding will be necessary to work with people who have experienced this kind of trauma in early life, even if they are currently in their waning years. Finding the help that they need can be critical for their health. The psychological effect of these experiences may be contributing to the physiological problems that they are fighting. Dealing with the psychological side of the problem may also help to improve they physical condition. Err on the side of compassion, though it can be difficult to see the link between their past & present. We never know the paths that others have been forced to walk.