Vincent Felitti, a Kaiser Permanente physician in San Diego in the 1990s, had a radical idea. Instead of just asking patients about their symptoms, what would happen if doctors asked them about their childhoods?
His hypothesis, built on a hunch informed by experience, was that childhood trauma was connected to poor health later in life. Felitti helped lead an exhaustive study of 17,000 patients that seemed to confirm his theory.
That was in 1998. But for years Felitti’s study and his conclusions had little impact, even at Kaiser. The findings were common sense and hardly disputable. But no one seemed to know what to do with them. And many doctors, comfortable with medical procedures and prescribing drugs, were reluctant to cross over into what seemed like psychology.
Now all of that is changing. More and more studies have shown that health and longevity are determined largely by things that happen outside of doctors’ offices and hospitals. Where and how we live and work and play are crucial.
This newfound appreciation for prevention has put Felitti’s work in the spotlight. A recent study by the California Department of Public Health examined the possible effect of 12 “adverse childhood experiences,” including parents divorcing, witnessing domestic abuse or being the victim of emotional or physical violence. That study found that people with at least four of those experiences had twice the likelihood of heart disease and cancer and more than double the risk of stroke compared to those with just one or no adverse experiences.
“There’s been an upsurge of interest across the country,” says Barbara Stern, a Sacramento marriage and family therapist helping to coordinate an awareness and education campaign in the region. “There’s an interest in trauma-informed practices in all aspects of society.”