By TAYLOR STUCK

HD Media

HUNTINGTON - In West Virginia, 52.4 percent of children under age 18 have had at least one of what officials call an adverse childhood experience, a rate significantly higher than the national average, according to the newest national data.

Twenty-six percent have had two or more experiences, such as the death or incarceration of a parent, witnessing or being a victim of violence, or living with someone who is suicidal or has a drug or alcohol problem.

Findings come from data in the 2016 National Survey of Children's Health and an analysis conducted by the Child & Adolescent Health Measurement Initiative at the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health, with support from the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation.

The adverse experiences, called ACEs, can have serious, long-term impacts on a child's health and well-being by contributing to high levels of toxic stress that derail healthy physical, social, emotional and cognitive development, according to officials with the initiative. Research shows that ACEs increase the long-term risk for smoking, alcoholism, depression, heart and liver diseases, and dozens of other illnesses and unhealthy behaviors.

The new data show that 33 percent of U.S. children with two or more ACEs have a chronic health condition involving a special health care need, compared with 13.6 percent of children without ACEs.

Nationally, more than 46 percent of U.S. youth - 34 million children under age 18 - have had at least one ACE, and more than 20 percent have had at least two.

In Ohio, 49.5 percent of children under age 18 have had at least one ACE, while 27.1 percent have had two or more. In Kentucky, 53.1 percent have had at least one ACE and 26.9 percent have had two or more, according to the findings.

The study found ACEs are more prevalent among children in low-income families - 62 percent of children with family incomes under 200 percent of the federal poverty level have had at least one ACE. However, they occur among children at all income levels. Twenty-six percent of children in families with incomes higher than 400 percent of the federal poverty level have had one or more ACEs as well.

"Every child deserves a healthy start. A loving home, a good school, a safe neighborhood - these things are the foundation for a long and happy life, yet too many children don't have them," said Richard Besser, president and CEO of the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation. "Too often children experience trauma that can be devastating. But trauma doesn't have to define a child's life trajectory. They can be incredibly resilient. With policies that help families raise healthy children and the consistent presence of caring adults in their lives, we can reduce the impact of trauma on children's health and help them thrive in the face of adversity."

In a 2014 TED Talk frequently shown by the ACE Coalition of West Virginia, pediatrician Dr. Nadine Burke Harris explained how the body's stress response system affects the brain, using a bear as an example.

"Imagine you're walking in the forest and you see a bear," Harris said. "Immediately, your hypothalamus sends a signal to your pituitary, which sends a signal to your adrenal gland that says, 'Release stress hormones! Adrenaline! Cortisol!' And so your heart starts to pound, your pupils dilate, your airways open up, and you are ready to either fight that bear or run from the bear. And that is wonderful - if you're in a forest and there's a bear."

The problem, she said, is when the "bear" comes home every night.

"Children are especially sensitive to this repeated stress activation, because their brains and bodies are just developing," Harris said. "High doses of adversity not only affect brain structure and function, they affect the developing immune system, developing hormonal systems, and even the way our DNA is read and transcribed."

The study found children ages 3-5 who have had two or more ACEs are over four times more likely to have trouble calming themselves down, be easily distracted, and have a hard time making and keeping friends. More than three out of four children ages 3-5 who have been expelled from preschool also had ACEs.

"ACEs and other traumatic events don't just affect an individual child - families, neighborhoods and communities all bear the brunt of these difficult circumstances, which add up over time," said Christina Bethell, director of CAHMI. "If a child's stress and unhealed trauma leads to acting out in class, that disruption is felt by the other children in the room as well as the teacher. These impacts require the healing of trauma at a family, community and societal level. Practitioners and policymakers should respond to these new data by advancing strategies that can both prevent ACEs in the first place and support families and communities as they learn and heal."

For more information on ACEs and for resources, visit https://www.wvaces.org/.

Follow reporter Taylor Stuck on Twitter and Facebook

@TaylorStuckHD.

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