Nearly 60 percent of all Orange County adults have experienced one or more types of childhood trauma or adversity, circumstances shown to lead to serious health conditions and the development of negative health habits later in life, according to a new report by the Center for Youth Wellness.

Statewide, 61.7 percent of adults have experienced at least one type of childhood adversity, and 16.7 percent have experienced four or more, according to the report, which draws from four years of statewide survey data.

Numerous studies have shown a correlation between adverse childhood experiences (a term used by clinicians to describe various types of abuse, neglect and family dysfunction) and chronic disease and destructive habits later in life.

Those experiences include emotional, verbal, physical and sexual abuse; witnessing domestic violence, parental separation or divorce; substance abuse by a household member; neglect; and having a household member who has a mental illness or has been incarcerated.

Butte County in the Lake Tahoe area and the northern California counties of Mendocino and Humboldt had the highest number of adults with one or more experiences of childhood adversity, more than 75 percent.

The Bay Area counties of Santa Clara and San Mateo counties rank the lowest, with 53 percent of residents reporting one or more adverse experience during childhood.

Researchers say exposure to chronic stress can affect a child’s basic brain chemistry, immune and hormonal systems, and thus have far-reaching impacts on their short- and long-term health.

Cecilia Chen, a policy analyst at the Center and the author of the report, compares the body’s response to stress with the “fight or flight” response one might have when encountering a bear in the woods.

“For many children growing up with chronic adversity, the bear never goes away. If you are a child with domestic violence at home, the bear is there every time he or she goes home – that stress response is constantly triggered,” Chen said.

“There’s a lot science is still learning, but we do know that kids that have high numbers of [adverse experiences], they’re more likely to be obese or overweight or have learning and behavioral problems at school,” Chen said.

Compared to someone who experienced no adversity as a child, people who have suffered four or more types of childhood trauma are five times more likely to suffer from depression; twice as likely to have chronic pulmonary disease, and three times as likely to smoke or binge drink, according to the report.

People with four or more adverse experiences are also 12 times as likely to attempt suicide, 10 times as likely to inject narcotics and seven times as likely to be an alcoholic.

The report also shows a correlation between poverty and adversity. As income decreases, the percentage of individuals with four or more adverse experiences increases, from 13 percent among the wealthiest to 20.4 percent among the poorest.

Chen also points to findings that prevalence of adverse childhood experiences is relatively consistent across all races and ethnicities.

“The majority of Californians have at least one ACE. It’s probably surprising to folks that the number is so high, but what it shows is that [these experiences] are really common,” Chen said.

Chen says the findings are a starting point for further research on access to health care and mental health services.

“While it’s not an indictment about what a child’s future health is going to be, there’s an opportunity in childhood to reverse the impact of toxic stress,” Chen said. “Addressing issues in childhood gives them the best opportunity to be healthy, happy adults.”

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