Healthy Wisconsin: ACEs

ACEs stands for Adverse Childhood Experiences. They’re important because our experiences can affect our health.

Health isn’t determined by genetics alone. Our choices, environment and experiences all play a part. The positive and negative experiences we have during childhood have a lasting effect on our health and well-being.

We use the term Adverse Childhood Experiences (ACEs) to describe traumatic childhood experiences that can have a lasting, negative effect on people’s lives through adulthood. These experiences—which include abuse, neglect and being exposed to violence, mental illness, divorce, substance abuse or criminal activity in the home—often leave people more vulnerable to environments and behaviors that can lead to poor health. The more ACEs an individual has experienced, the higher their risk climbs.

To be clear, ACEs are harmful experiences, not “bad” people, and they occur more commonly than you’d expect. In Wisconsin, more than half of all adults have one ACE in their past. How well each of us deals with these past experiences—and the new challenges we face each day—largely depends on our ability to adapt to or recover from stress. That ability is called resilience, and it’s a skill anyone can develop over time.   

ACEs are often rooted in toxic stress

Imagine living your entire life on high alert: heart pumping, brain flooded with adrenaline. For a child who experiences abuse, neglect or other kinds of trauma at home, living with that amount of stress is an every day reality. That’s not just difficult; it’s toxic. Toxic stress can affect the way a child’s brain develops, changing how they’ll learn and communicate, respond to adversity and make decisions for the rest of their life.

It’s no wonder researchers have found connections between adverse childhood experiences, chronic diseases like heart disease, and risky behaviors like smoking and substance abuse. It also helps to explain why communities that experience more stress are more vulnerable to poor health.

Research shows that ACEs impact all populations, regardless of identity. But some populations have higher rates of ACEs than others. In Wisconsin, black and Native American populations are more likely to have ACEs than their white, Asian and Hispanic/Latino peers. Similarly, people who make less money and have less education are more likely to have experienced ACEs than those with more money and education.

Things like race and ethnicity, where we live or work, and how much we earn shouldn’t play a defining role in how healthy we are or how long we live. For many people in Wisconsin, they do. But they don’t have to.

Having ACEs in your past doesn’t have to define your future

While ACEs are clearly related to health and behaviors later in life, they aren’t a guarantee of anything. The negative health effects of ACEs can be softened when people have a strong support system and the skills to successfully cope with life’s many challenges. We call that resilience, and it’s something children learn best when they’ve been given the following positive supports:

  • Caring relationships with parents, teachers, counselors or other adults actively involved in child’s life
  • Good peer relationships
  • Positive disposition
  • Positive coping style
  • Good social skills

Building resilience is a lifelong process. For adults, learning how to adapt to change and recover from setbacks can mean thoughtfully considering behavior and attitudes, learning from the past and finding healthy ways to cope with daily stress. Some ways to improve your resilience at any stage in life include:

  • Building strong relationships with family and friends
  • Setting realistic personal goals
  • Giving yourself credit for positive choices
  • Eating well, getting plenty of sleep and staying active
  • Taking proactive action when faced with a challenge

The Wisconsin Department of Health Services is working to understand ACEs and other factors that put the health of our citizens at risk. Many programs in Wisconsin are incorporating ACEs awareness and trauma-informed care into their policies and practices, including former Wisconsin First Lady Tonette Walker's Fostering Futures initiative, the Waupaca County Department of Health and Human Services and Milwaukee's juvenile court system. Because we all deserve the opportunity to choose a healthy life.


Learn more about ACEs in Wisconsin.

Last Revised: April 22, 2021