Childhood Trauma Linked to Faster Aging
By Traci Pedersen
Associate News Editor
Last updated: 4 Aug 2020
Individuals who experienced childhood trauma from abuse or violence show biological signs of aging faster than those who never experienced adversity, according to a new study published in the journal Psychological Bulletin.
Harvard researchers examined three different signs of biological aging — early puberty, cellular aging, and changes in brain structure — and found that trauma exposure was linked to all three.
“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,” said Katie McLaughlin, PhD, an associate professor of psychology at Harvard University and senior author of the study.
“Our study suggests that experiencing violence can make the body age more quickly at a biological level, which may help to explain that connection.”
Prior research showed mixed evidence on whether childhood adversity is always linked to accelerated aging. However, those studies looked at many different types of adversity — abuse, neglect, poverty and more — and at several different measures of biological aging.
To disentangle the results, the research team 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.
The team conducted an analysis of almost 80 studies, with more than 116,000 total participants. They discovered that children who experienced threat-related trauma such as violence or abuse were more likely to begin puberty early and also show signs of accelerated aging on a cellular level-including shortened telomeres, the protective caps at the ends of our strands of DNA that wear down as we age. However, children who experienced poverty or neglect did not show either of those signs of early aging.
In another analysis, the researchers looked at 25 studies with more than 3,253 participants that examined how early-life adversity affects brain development. They found that adversity was linked to reduced cortical thickness — a sign of aging because the cortex thins as people age.
However, different types of adversity were linked to cortical thinning in different parts of the brain. Trauma and violence 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.
These types of accelerated aging might originally have descended from useful evolutionary adaptations, according to McLaughlin. 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.
And faster development of brain regions involved 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 new findings emphasize the need for early interventions to help avoid those consequences. All of the studies looked at accelerated aging in children and adolescents under age 18.
“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.
There are several evidence-based treatments that can improve mental health in children who have experienced trauma, McLaughlin said.
“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,” she says.