BACKGROUND: Experiencing multiple adverse childhood experiences (ACEs) is a risk factor for many adverse outcomes. We explore associations of ACEs with educational attainment and adolescent health and the role of family and socioeconomic factors in these associations.
METHODS AND FINDINGS: Using data from the Avon Longitudinal Study of Parents and Children (ALSPAC), a prospective cohort of children born in southwest England in 1991-1992, we assess associations of ACEs between birth and 16 years (sexual, physical, or emotional abuse; emotional neglect; parental substance abuse; parental mental illness or suicide attempt; violence between parents; parental separation; bullying; and parental criminal conviction, with data collected on multiple occasions between birth and age 16) with educational attainment at 16 years (n = 9,959) and health at age 17 years (depression, obesity, harmful alcohol use, smoking, and illicit drug use; n = 4,917). We explore the extent to which associations are robust to adjustment for family and socioeconomic factors (home ownership, mother and partner's highest educational qualification, household social class, parity, child's ethnicity, mother's age, mother's marital status, mother's depression score at 18 and 32 weeks gestation, and mother's partner's depression score at 18 weeks gestation) and whether associations differ according to socioeconomic factors, and we estimate the proportion of adverse educational and health outcomes attributable to ACEs or family or socioeconomic measures. Among the 9,959 participants (49.5% female) included in analysis of educational outcomes, 84% reported at least one ACE, 24% reported 4 or more ACEs, and 54.5% received 5 or more General Certificates of Secondary Education (GCSEs) at grade C or above, including English and Maths. Among the 4,917 participants (50.1% female) included in analysis of health outcomes, 7.3% were obese, 8.7% had depression, 19.5% reported smoking, 16.1% reported drug use, and 10.9% reported harmful alcohol use. There were associations of ACEs with lower educational attainment and higher risk of depression, drug use, and smoking. For example, odds ratios (ORs) for 4+ ACEs compared with no ACEs after adjustment for confounders were depression, 2.4 (1.6-3.8, p < 0.001); drug use, 3.1 (2.1-4.4, p < 0.001); and smoking, 2.3 (1.7-3.1, p < 0.001). Associations with educational attainment attenuated after adjustment but remained strong; for example, the OR after adjustment for confounders for low educational attainment comparing 4+ ACEs with no ACEs was 2.0 (1.7-2.4, p < 0.001). Associations with depression, drug use, and smoking were not altered by adjustment. Associations of ACEs with harmful alcohol use and obesity were weak. For example, ORs for 4+ ACEs compared with no ACEs after adjustment for confounders were harmful alcohol use, 1.4 (0.9-2.0, p = 0.10) and obesity, 1.4 (0.9-2.2, p = 0.13) We found no evidence that socioeconomic factors modified the associations of ACEs with educational or health outcomes. Population attributable fractions (PAFs) for the adverse educational and health outcomes range from 5%-15% for 4+ ACEs and 1%-19% for low maternal education. Using data from multiple questionnaires across a long period of time enabled us to capture a detailed picture of the cohort members' experience of ACEs; however, a limitation of our study is that this resulted in a high proportion of missing data, and our analyses assume data are missing at random.
CONCLUSIONS: This study demonstrates associations between ACEs and lower educational attainment and higher risks of depression, drug use, and smoking that remain after adjustment for family and socioeconomic factors. The low PAFs for both ACEs and socioeconomic factors imply that interventions that focus solely on ACEs or solely on socioeconomic deprivation, whilst beneficial, would miss most cases of adverse educational and health outcomes. This interpretation suggests that intervention strategies should target a wide range of relevant factors, including ACEs, socioeconomic deprivation, parental substance use, and mental health.