Adverse Childhood Experiences, COVID, and Obesity

Children with the LampIf you had any doubt that the last two years have been a trial for young people, new research from the CDC should put that to rest. In the MMWR yesterday, CDC published striking data on the mental and behavioral health of teens in the midst of the pandemic. In short, researchers found them in a mental health crisis. Physical and emotional abuse were all too common. COVID has set the stage for a proliferation of adverse childhood experiences (ACEs).

Given the strong link between ACEs and obesity, these data give us insight into one of the factors sparking more obesity in youth during the pandemic.

A Cry for Help

“These data echo a cry for help,” said Debra Houry of CDC at a briefing on the new report. Nearly half of teens reported persistent sad or hopeless feelings that prevent them from normal life activities. Nine percent reported an attempted suicide.

Rates of emotional and physical abuse were high. More than half reported emotional abuse from a parent or other adult in their household. Reports of physical abuse came from 11 percent of participants in this research.

Disparate Risks and Experiences

Both the experiences and the implications differ widely. CDC researchers noted that the impact was greatest for female and LGBQ teens. In particular, the rates of attempted suicide were higher. Experiences of racism also surfaced as a serious problem for mental health. Students who reported experiences of racism were less likely to feel connected to people at school and more likely to report poor mental health.

All of this comes on top of well-documented disparities in the impact of the pandemic.

ACEs, Obesity, and Genetic Susceptibility

These traumas have a profound impact on health into adulthood. Now, we have new data to explain how adverse childhood experiences interact with genetic traits to produce poor health outcomes. New research by Karen Schlauch and colleagues tells us that these ACEs interact with specific genetic traits to put some people at higher risk for both physical and mental health issues in adulthood. In particular, the researchers looked at obesity and schizophrenia. They found gene sequences that do not predict a high BMI by themselves. But in combination with ACEs, they found a large positive effect size.

Clearly, children and youth are in a state of mental health crisis that demands attention. Not all of our young people experience this crisis in the same way. But every one of them deserves a shot at growing up into good mental and physical health.

Click here for the new report from MMWR and here for the research by Schlauch et al. For further perspective, click here, here, and here.

Children with the Lamp, painting by Jose Gutierrez Solana / WikiArt

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April 2, 2022