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How a Traumatic Childhood Can Lead to Obesity, Health Problems and Early Death

Childhood trauma not only affects adult mental health, but can severely impact adult physical health -- even mortality.

While it's common knowledge that childhood trauma can have far-reaching and sometimes dire consequences for adult mental health, it's less obvious that abuse, neglect, parental alcoholism, severely dysfunctional family patterns, and other stresses in childhood can severely affect adult physical health, and even mortality. However, a path-breaking epidemiological survey called the Adverse Childhood Experiences (ACE) Study, initiated jointly by the Kaiser Permanente HMO in California and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in 1995–1997 and still continuing, demonstrates an astonishing correlation between childhood maltreatment and later-life medical illnesses and premature death.

The ACE study was based on detailed interviews with more than 17,000 Kaiser Permanente members about their childhood experiences of neglect, abuse, and family dysfunction. As the health profiles of these participants have been tracked through the years, about 70 scientific articles have been published linking childhood adversity to a host of mental and medical conditions, including among the latter autoimmune, heart, lung, and liver diseases, cancer, hepatitis or jaundice, diabetes, bone fractures, and sexually transmitted diseases.

The study came about almost by accident: it was the entirely unexpected consequence of a Kaiser Permanente weight-loss program that went strangely awry. During the mid-1980s, Vincent Felitti, founder of Kaiser Permanente's Department of Preventive Medicine, began directing a new obesity-treatment program, based on the technique of "absolute fasting" -- no solid foods, only liquids supplemented by 420 calories daily derived from vitamins, essential amino and fatty acids, and electrolytes. At first, the program seemed to be a smashing success. People lost 50 pounds and up. The weight loss for some of these patients, many of whom were morbidly obese, was a staggering 300 pounds, which even exceeded what's ordinarily accomplished with bariatric surgery.

But within a year or two, Felitti reports, he and his colleagues began having "a very unusual problem." There was a high dropout rate, not among people who were eating in secret and failing to lose weight, but almost exclusively among those who were successful and losing a great deal of weight. "This was driving us nuts," he recalls. "These kinds of weight reductions led us to believe we knew what we were doing. We had this great opportunity to establish a noteworthy weight-loss department, and these damn people were ruining it by fleeing what they wanted to accomplish!"

Jan, a young woman who entered the program in 1985 at 408 pounds, exemplifies what Felitti was encountering. Fifty-one weeks into the regime, she'd dropped down to a svelte 132 pounds. But a short time later, she suddenly began gaining again -- 37 pounds in three weeks, which Felitti would have thought physiologically impossible if it hadn't been documented. Asked what she thought had triggered this massive eat-a-thon, she replied that she had a history of sleep-walking and thought she was now "sleep-eating." She lived alone, and when she awoke in the morning, her kitchen was a mess of open food boxes, tins, and jars from her pantry, scattered among dirty pots, pans, and plates. "Since I'm the only person living there," Jan said, "nobody else can be eating the food -- that's the only reason I can think of for gaining weight."

But why now, Felitti wanted to know. What was going on in her life that triggered her gorging? She said a married coworker, a much older man, had complimented her on her new, slim, attractive appearance, and then suggested they start having sex once or twice a week. That had begun her three-week "sleep-eating" binge. Felitti was still mystified -- the proposition was crude, the guy sounded like a jerk, but was this bad enough to derail her astonishing, life-saving progress? Slowly, Jan revealed the story behind the story: as a child she'd been severely molested for many years by her grandfather, and since then, her entire life had revolved around not allowing herself to ever be sexually vulnerable again. Even her job fit the bill. She worked as a nurse's aide in the night shift of a convalescent hospital -- paid to stay awake, on her feet, and safe while her elderly charges were asleep in bed.

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