Partitioning the Composition of Adverse Childhood Experiences From Accumulated Adversity: Cross-Sectional Evidence From 2 U.S. Samples

Steven D. Barger, Jose A. Oláis

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review


Introduction: Adverse childhood experiences are linked to adult morbidity and mortality. However, it is unknown whether the patterning of adverse childhood experiences, individually and in combination, confer health risk distinct from that of a cumulative adversity score. This study evaluates whether individual and comorbid adverse childhood experience exposures within a cumulative risk score are equally associated with current smoking and lifetime history of depression. Methods: Cross-sectional analysis of adverse childhood experience assessments in the Behavioral Risk Factor Surveillance System from 21 states in 2019 (n=115,183) and 23 states in 2020 (n=120,416) was performed. We modeled cumulative adverse childhood experience scores and the 5 most common distinct adverse childhood experience components that compose a given adverse childhood experience score, up to a cumulative score of 4. We compared adverse childhood experience components, adjusting for covariates. Results: Across both samples, 23% and 57%–58% of persons reported 1 adverse childhood experience and 2 or more adverse childhood experiences, respectively. In 2019 smoking prevalence was 10.4% for persons reporting zero adverse childhood experiences and 14.2% for persons reporting 1 adverse childhood experience. When the single adverse childhood experience was experiencing parental divorce, smoking was higher (16.6%) than when the single adverse childhood experience was verbal abuse (11.8%) or living with a mentally ill household member (9.5%). Lifetime depression prevalence was 9.6% and 14.1% across zero and 1 adverse childhood experience, respectively, whereas it was 26.6% if the single adverse childhood experience was living with a mentally ill household member and 11.0% when the adverse childhood experience was experiencing parental divorce. This heterogeneity was replicated in 2020 data. Additional heterogeneity was observed for higher cumulative adverse childhood experience scores. Conclusions: Cumulative adverse childhood experience scores mask substantial health risk heterogeneity, which can be delineated by examining distinct components of cumulative adverse childhood experience scores.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Article number100192
JournalAJPM Focus
Issue number2
StatePublished - Apr 2024


  • Adverse childhood experiences
  • depression
  • epidemiology
  • smoking

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Public Health, Environmental and Occupational Health
  • Health Informatics
  • Epidemiology

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