Researchers found that the higher the number of health-harming behaviours experienced in childhood, the more likely children would grow up to experience drug addiction and other damaging behaviour.
Although deprivation was a factor, this was the case even for those who did not have a deprived home environment.
The authors of the report, Adverse Childhood Experience, argue that the findings give weight to the need for greater access to early intervention support to ensure all children have safe and happy childhoods.
The research highlights the importance of addressing the issue to improve the lives of the children affected and calculates that preventing 'adverse childhood experiences' in England could help reduce problem drug use and violence in adults by up to 50 per cent, those who have experienced teenage pregnancies by a third, and reduce levels of binge drinking and smoking by around 15 per cent.
The survey of 3,885 adults in England shows that a substantial proportion of individuals in England have experienced stressful events as children that may continue to affect their behavior as adults.
Participants were asked about their experiences of nine different health-harming behaviours, both current and in the past, including violence, sex under the age of 16, teenage pregnancy, smoking, alcohol consumption, drug use, and diet.
The findings suggest that nearly half of adults in England have experienced one adverse experience during their childhood and around one in ten have suffered four or more adverse childhood experiences.
These children were more likely to go on to smoke (three times more likely) become teenage parents (six times more likely), be involved in violence in the last year (seven times more likely) and 11 times more likely to have ever used crack cocaine or heroin.
Researchers from Liverpool John Moores University carried out the survey of people aged 18 to 69 from 200 different areas across the country, which varied in terms of deprivation and wealth and ethnicity.
Mark Bellis, lead author of the study, said, ‘The foundations for many of the health harming behaviors we see in adults are laid down during childhood.
‘Adverse childhood experiences can affect the development of children's brains, immune systems and ultimately set them on a health harming life course.
‘The importance of addressing adverse child events is often hidden, along with the voices of the children affected. We already know that the introduction of evidence-based interventions providing support for children and parents can help reduce adverse childhood experiences.
'A limited number of people, especially in deprived communities, receive such support in England. However, we need to ensure that parents, health practitioners and policy makers recognise the lifelong benefits that result from ensuring all children have safe and nurturing childhoods.’
- The study, Adverse Childhood Experience, is published in the open access journal BMC Medicine.