In the mid-1980s, Dr. Vincent Felitti and other physicians involved with Kaiser Permanente's Department of Preventive Medicine in San Diego noticed that obese patients who had been the most successful losing weight were the most likely to drop out of the program.

The unexpected finding led to another surprise: A high proportion of those who had dropped out had histories of childhood abuse or neglect. Across the country, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention was starting to find the same childhood trauma correlations among patients in Veterans Administration hospitals who had experienced childhood trauma and were now seriously ill from smoking, overeating or compulsive use of prescription and street drugs.

A collaboration between Kaiser and the CDC began in 1992 in what has become the largest-scale study to date on the incidence and effects of childhood trauma — the Adverse Childhood Experiences (ACE) study.

Results from the 17,400 Kaiser patients who have volunteered for the study are showing time and again that bad childhood experiences, no matter how well-concealed or how long forgotten, never really go away for many people. In fact, they can literally drive them to drink too much. Those events determine a victim's choices as an adult and can create addictions that lead to disease and chronic conditions from cancer to just never feeling good, the research shows.

"We saw that things like intractable smoking, promiscuity, use of street drugs, heavy alcohol consumption were fairly common in the backgrounds of many of the patients who had adopted them as techniques to cope with emotional wounds from childhood," Felitti told the Deseret News between his speeches at the state Department of Human Services' fifth annual Drug-Endangered Children Conference at Westminster College earlier this month.

The findings Felitti presented at the conference disheartened several audience members, who said prevention, education and treatment effort are too focused on the effects and fear of drug addiction while overlooking the reason people turn to drugs in the first place.

The fact is, using drugs won't make you feel better in the long run, and quitting them won't either, Felitti said.

"Wanting to feel better is not a bad thing," he said. "It's just that using a shortcut that almost makes you feel better is still attractive and still hard to give up.

Felitti said many people mistakenly have the attitude that traumatic events in childhood can simply be gotten over.

"But the powerful connection between our emotional experience as children and our emotional and physical well-being as adults shows that time absolutely does not heal all wounds," he said.

The data are providing detailed information about adult addiction, even down to the likelihood of someone turning to street drugs. A male patient with a child ACE trauma score of six, compared with a male child with an ACE score of zero, has a 4,600 percent increase in the likelihood of becoming an injection drug user sometime later in life.

When health studies find a higher risk for disease in a research group, a 10 percent to 30 percent increase is viewed as alarming, he said.

"We're regularly finding correlations 40 times that," Felitti said.

e-mail: jthalman@desnews.com