Children Who Experience Violence or Trauma Age Faster: Study
A meta-analysis of almost 80 studies has found that children who experience threat-related trauma — physical abuse and violence — early in life are likely to enter puberty earlier than children who don’t grow up in violent environments, and also show signs of accelerated aging.
“Exposure to adversity in childhood is a powerful predictor of health outcomes later in life — not only mental health outcomes like depression and anxiety but also physical health outcomes like cardiovascular disease, diabetes, and cancer,” according to Katie McLaughlin, an associate professor of psychology at Harvard University and senior author of the study, published in the journal Psychological Bulletin. “Our study suggests that experiencing violence can make the body age more quickly at a biological level, which may help to explain that connection.”
Researchers found children who experienced abuse and violence aged faster at a cellular level — they had shortened telomeres, which are caps situated at the end of our DNA that normally start deteriorating as we age. They also found children who experienced violent adversity early in life had reduced cortical thickness, which is another sign of aging manifesting in the brain.
These, according to McLaughlin, might be evolutionary processes that developed to help children adapt to adversity as they age. Aging of the brain, for example, could signal faster development of certain regions in the brain that strengthened, accelerated emotional processing of trauma, helping children identify and respond to threats faster, even at a young age. Reaching puberty earlier, especially for girls who start menstruating early, could signal an evolutionary process that helps them reproduce early before they die.
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But, these evolutionary tweaks in the bodies of those who experience trauma can have severe consequences in adulthood, such as physical health consequences that often accompany aging, like cancers. “The fact that we see such consistent evidence for faster aging at such a young age suggests that the biological mechanisms that contribute to health disparities are set in motion very early in life. This means that efforts to prevent these health disparities must also begin during childhood,” McLaughlin said.
In comparison to another kind of adversity most common in children — deprivation, stemming poverty, or emotional neglect — threat-related trauma produced a much stronger change in the body, researchers found. Regardless, psychosocial interventions that protect children from the harmful effects of such adversity might be able to slow this process of aging, but is a field that requires further research, McLaughlin added.