Guest columnist Ruth Kagi says Washington is leading the nation in confronting the public-health challenges of children who face sustained childhood trauma. Studies show children with such experiences have much higher long-term health risks, including for obesity.

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A NEW study by the Trust for America’s Health reveals Washington is one of 10 states in which the obesity rate has increased 90 percent within the past 15 years.

That we’ve almost doubled the rate in less than two decades is startling. What is equally worrisome is that obesity isn’t only increasing among adults, but among children as well. Two recent Seattle Times articles discuss the state’s battle against childhood obesity.

While various approaches to lowering obesity rates are being pursued, a key finding in another study cannot be disregarded: Young children who experience serious trauma or neglect are more likely to have long-term negative health and other impacts than those who do not — including obesity.

The Adverse Childhood Experiences (ACE) Study is a decadelong and ongoing collaboration between Kaiser Permanente’s Department of Preventive Medicine in San Diego and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). With 17,000 participants, it is the largest study of its kind.

The study’s origins came out of obesity research in the 1980s, in which a connection was discovered between physical or sexual abuse in childhood and chronic health problems in adulthood.

While every child experiences trauma at some time, if there is a parent or other caring adult who can comfort and soothe the child, science indicates there is generally no long-term damage. In fact, through these experiences children learn how to cope with adversity.

However, if abuse, neglect or other stressful situations in the home are prolonged, chemicals are released that actually alter development of the child’s brain.

Sadly, the “adverse experiences” defined in the study are not uncommon in our society. Physical, emotional and sexual abuse certainly meet the definition, but so does witnessing domestic violence in the home or having a parent or caregiver with a drug or alcohol addiction.

The effect of children’s adverse experiences is also cumulative. Compared with children with an “ACE score” of zero, a child with four risk factors has almost double the risk of obesity. Having four or more adverse childhood experiences also more than doubles the risk of heart attack and stroke, and nearly quadruples the risk of emphysema.

This research highlights the importance of support for families experiencing adversity as they struggle to raise young children. The health consequences, and the costs to society, are too high to ignore.

Fortunately, Washington is leading the way in recognizing the detrimental effect of these experiences on long-term health, and in working to reduce their incidence in children. The Legislature’s recent passage of House Bill 1965, which I sponsored, will help support ongoing efforts to build a healthier society for the long term.

The bill recognizes that both philanthropic organizations and the state are interested in addressing this problem, and authorizes a public-private partnership supporting community-based efforts to prevent and address the effect of adverse childhood experiences. Communities can help prevent harm to children.

This measure makes Washington the first state to act on the ACE study data via statute, with other states expected to follow our lead.

Certainly, childhood obesity has many causes, and many overweight children have never experienced abuse, neglect or trauma in the family home. But reducing such experiences should be a public-health priority.

Health behaviors that put people at risk of a serious chronic illness increase everyone’s health-care costs. The ACE study suggests we can look back to early childhood experiences to break the pattern of harmful personal health behaviors. It is potentially a much more humane and cost-effective way to tackle rising health-care costs.

We are taking an important step in fighting childhood obesity. Using the ACE study’s findings, we can protect the long-term health and well-being of Washington’s children, and hopefully reverse the alarming trend in our state’s obesity rates.

State Rep. Ruth Kagi, D-Lake Forest Park, represents the 32nd Legislative District and chairs the House Early Learning and Human Services Committee.