Children who experience trauma such as violence and abuse more likely to age faster, new study reveals
The findings underscore the need for early interventions to help avoid those consequences, say experts
Children who suffer trauma from violence or abuse early in life show biological signs of aging faster than children who have never experienced adversity, according to researchers. They examined three different signs of biological aging — early puberty, cellular aging, and changes in brain structure — and found that trauma exposure was associated with all three. The findings could help explain why children who suffer trauma often face poor health later in life and underscores the need for early interventions to help avoid those consequences, says the research team from the University of Washington, Stanford University, and Harvard University.
Exposure to early life adversity — including exposure to child abuse, sexual assault, neglect, and chronic poverty — is associated with an increased risk for numerous mental and physical health problems, including depression, anxiety disorders, substance abuse, suicide, and cardiovascular disease, say experts. Previous studies have found mixed evidence on whether childhood adversity is always linked to accelerated aging. However, those studies looked at many different types of adversity, such as abuse, neglect, poverty, and more, and several different measures of biological aging. To disentangle the results, the authors decided to look separately at two categories of adversity: threat-related adversity, such as abuse and violence, and deprivation-related adversity, such as physical or emotional neglect or poverty.
“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. Our study suggests that experiencing violence can make the body age more quickly at a biological level, which may help to explain that connection,” says Dr Katie McLaughlin, an associate professor of psychology at Harvard University and senior author of the study published in Psychological Bulletin by the American Psychological Association.
All of the studies examined by the authors for the research looked at accelerated aging in children and adolescents under the age of 18. According to McLaughlin, the fact that they saw 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, she adds.
The researchers performed a meta-analysis of over 50 studies, with more than 116,000 participants. The results reveal that children who suffered threat-related trauma such as violence or abuse were more likely to enter puberty early and also showed signs of faster aging on a cellular level — including shortened telomeres, the protective caps at the ends of the strands of DNA that wear down as people age. However, children who experienced poverty or neglect did not show either of those signs of early aging.
In a second analysis, the researchers systematically reviewed 25 studies with 3,253 participants that examined how early-life adversity affects brain development. They found that adversity was associated with reduced cortical thickness — a sign of aging because the cortex thins as people age. However, different types of adversity were associated with cortical thinning in different parts of the brain. Trauma and violence, for example, were associated with thinning in the ventromedial prefrontal cortex, which is involved in social and emotional processing, while deprivation was more often associated with thinning in the frontoparietal, default mode and visual networks, which are involved in sensory and cognitive processing, says the study.
“This meta-analysis and systematic review suggest that biological aging following early-life adversity, including earlier pubertal timing, advanced cellular aging, and accelerated thinning of the cortex, may be specific to children and adolescents who experienced violent or traumatic experiences early in childhood. No such effect was found for children who experienced deprivation or poverty in the absence of violence or trauma. These findings highlight a potential role of accelerated biological aging in health disparities associated with early life trauma, and a potential target for early interventions,” the findings state.
According to the researchers, these types of accelerated aging might originally have “descended from useful evolutionary adaptations.” In a violent and threat-filled environment, for example, reaching puberty earlier could make people more likely to be able to reproduce before they die. Faster development of brain regions that play a role in emotion processing could help children identify and respond to threats, keeping them safer in dangerous environments. But these once-useful adaptations may have grave health and mental health consequences in adulthood, the team explains.
The research team emphasizes that numerous evidence-based treatments can improve mental health in children who have experienced trauma. “A critical next step is determining whether these psychosocial interventions might also be able to slow down this pattern of accelerated biological aging. If this is possible, we may be able to prevent many of the long-term health consequences of early-life adversity,” says McLaughlin.