Several studies have linked adverse childhood experiences to health problems such as diabetes, cardiovascular disease, cancer, and mental illness later in life. People who experienced childhood trauma may also age faster, revealed a study published by the American Psychological Association.
According to the researchers, children who experienced trauma from abuse or violence early in life showed biological signs of aging faster than children who have never experienced adversity. Trauma exposure was found to be associated with three different signs of biological aging -- early puberty, cellular aging and changes in brain structure.
The study suggests that experiencing violence can make the body age more quickly at a biological level, which could explain why children who suffer trauma often face poor health later in life, noted Katie McLaughlin, PhD, an associate professor of psychology at Harvard University and senior author of the study, in a paper published in the journal Psychological Bulletin.
The new research stressed the need for early interventions to help prevent many of the long-term health consequences of early-life adversity. McLaughlin suggested that screening for adversity in children who have early puberty may help identify those who might be at risk of early onset of physical and mental health problems.
Treat-related trauma linked to accelerated aging
For the study, McLaughlin and her colleagues performed a meta-analysis of almost 80 studies, including more than 116,000 participants. They looked 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.
Children who suffered threat-related trauma such as violence or abuse were found to be more likely to enter puberty early compared with those who had not. They also showed signs of accelerated aging on a cellular level such as shortened telomeres - the protective cap at the end of each strand of DNA that wear down as we age. However, these signs of early aging were not found in children who experienced poverty or neglect.
You may like to read
According to the team, children who suffered violence or abuse appeared to be months or even years older than they really were.
Early-life adversity can affect brain development
Further the team reviewed 25 studies with more than 3,253 participants to examine how early-life adversity affects brain development. They found that childhood adversity led to thinning of the cortex, the outer layer of the brain. Cortical thickness reduces with age and is associated with an increase in efficiency in processing.
However, threat-related adversity and deprivation-related adversity affected the brain differently. While trauma and violence led to thinning in the ventromedial prefrontal cortex, which is involved in social and emotional processing, deprivation-related adversity mostly affected the frontoparietal, default mode and visual networks that are involved in sensory and cognitive processing.
According to McLaughlin, faster development of brain regions that play a role in processing social and emotional information could help children identify and respond to threats. But the benefits may be short term and such changes may increase risk of health and mental health problems later in life.
The findings suggest that biological mechanisms that contribute to health disparities are set in motion very early in life. Therefore efforts to prevent these health disparities must also begin during childhood, McLaughlin added.