Baby's First Year · Parenting

The impact of early life experiences on the brain

Close-up of child holding parent's hand

This is the third part of the brain development series.

In this part of the brain development series, we will learn how early life experiences can impact your health and well-being later in life.

There was a huge study done in the 1990’s called the Adverse Childhood Experiences (ACEs) study.  This study looked at the effect of negative experiences in childhood on health and well-being later in life.  

ACEs are “potentially traumatic events that occur in childhood before age 18”.

Examples of ACEs include:

  • experiencing violence, abuse, or neglect
  • witnessing violence in the home or community
  • growing up in a household with someone who has substance abuse or mental health problems
  • having parents who are separated, divorced or go to jail

The study found that ACEs can have lasting, negative effects on health, well-being, and opportunity and that the more ACEs you are exposed to, the higher the risk of poor health outcomes.

Being exposed to ACEs as a child can increase the risk for future:

  • injuries such as fractures, burns and brain injuries
  • depression, anxiety, post-traumatic stress disorder and suicide
  • teen pregnancy and complications in pregnancy
  • sexually transmitted infections
  • chronic diseases such as cancer, diabetes and heart disease
  • alcohol and drug abuse
  • low education and income
  • unemployment

The study also found that ACEs were common – almost two thirds of adults in the study had experienced at least one ACE.

Prevent the negative effects of ACEs by creating safe physical and emotional environments (home, school, community, systems)

When a child is exposed to repeated ACEs it will re-wire their brain and create poor health.  Remember in part 2 we learned how serve and return strengthens brain connections which improve learning and behaviour later in life. Well, exposure to ACEs weakens these brain connections, especially the connections that are needed for:

Source: Alberta Family Wellness
    • thinking
    • paying attention
    • planning ahead
    • dealing with conflict
    • following rules
    • controlling emotions
    • getting along with others

And this increases their risk for future negative health outcomes as listed above.

But there is good news! The negative impacts of ACEs can be prevented through:

  • nurturing environments that are full of serve and return interactions 
  • reducing sources of stress
  • helping children build life skills that help them to be resilient and deal with stress in healthy ways

This video explains how experiences early in life impact brain development:

Alberta Family Wellness (4:05 minutes)

You might be wondering if some of your experiences as a child have impacted your health and well-being as a parent.  Curious to know your ACE score?  Take the test.

To build better futures, we need to build better brains!

Stay tuned for Part 4 where we will learn about resilience.

For more information:


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