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This New Study Shows Childhood Trauma May Accelerate Aging

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Editor's Note

If you’ve experienced domestic violence or emotional abuse, sexual abuse or assault, the following post could be potentially triggering.

You can contact The National Sexual Assault Telephone Hotline at 1-800-656-4673.

You can contact The National Domestic Violence Hotline online by selecting “chat now” or calling 1-800-799-7233.

You can also contact the Crisis Text Line by texting “START” to 741741.

Just as scientists raised alarms that domestic child abuse is on the rise during the coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic, a new study links exposure to abuse and violence in childhood with rapid aging.

Exposure to violence and threats of violence during childhood has been linked to “accelerated biological aging,” whereas neglect is not, according to the meta-analysis published in August in the journal Psychological Bulletin. This means that the threat of violence is more physiologically taxing on the developing child than deprivation.

Researchers reviewed 54 studies on the effects of child abuse on cellular aging, the onset of puberty, thickness of the prefrontal cortex. Threat-related (i.e. violence) early life adversity (ELA) is associated with advanced pubertal development (entering puberty earlier than peers). Child neglect is, on the other hand, associated with delayed pubertal stage.

Abused children have been known to experience telomere shortening. Telomeres are nucleotides that appear on the end of our chromosomes. They shorten as we age and are associated with mortality. If our telomeres never shortened, one could posit that humans would never die.

When U.S. astronaut Scott Kelly spent a year on the International Space Station, researchers found his telomeres had lengthened in comparison to his identical twin brother Mark Kelly’s telomeres. Unfortunately, Scott’s telomeres shortened shortly after his return to Earth. In fact, nearly one thousand of his genes changed in expression during his prolonged stay in space, and all returned to “normal” levels after about six months back on Earth. The telomeres in abused children, however, do not return to their normal length.

Furthermore, abuse is associated with a thinning of the prefrontal cortex, the area of the brain responsible for higher cognitive functions like decision-making, memory, planning and attention. It reaches maturity around our mid-20s (incidentally, this is the median age for the development of schizophrenia). I mention this because I am a domestic violence/child abuse survivor and my only sibling lives with schizophrenia. Cortical thinning has been documented in schizophrenia, specifically “the cortex shows excessive thinning over time in widespread areas of the brain, most pronounced in the frontal and temporal areas, and progresses across the entire course of the illness.”

I can recall a particular class in graduate school in which a fellow student in my psychology program mentioned that she’d worked with schizophrenia patients in an externship setting. “You really feel so bad for these people,” she said. “They all had such terrible childhoods. It’s a miracle they’re even alive.”

Her words stung. As was my habit, I retreated from the class discussion, ashamed and embarrassed to add anything. But it hurt so much because I knew firsthand that she was correct. It was a miracle my brother was alive. That’s why it was so painful when he descended into active psychosis at age 24. We were adults (although still very young), but I thought it meant we were out of the woods. But it’s not enough to survive the abuse. There are post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) symptoms, panic attacks, intimacy issues, in addition to anger management and a myriad of other unlearned social and emotional skills that can only be addressed in therapy.

The journey of overcoming a family of origin that includes harm and threat of harm is lifelong.

The prefrontal cortex thins as everyone ages, but it thins more rapidly in the case of childhood violence and schizophrenia. The hope for these children is early intervention. “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,” the study’s senior author Katie McLaughlin, Ph.D., an associate professor of psychology at Harvard University, said in a release. “This means that efforts to prevent these health disparities must also begin during childhood.”

Rapid aging is far from the only risk of violence during childhood. “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,” McLaughlin said.

Keep your eyes open. If you see something, say something. Be a child’s hero.

Image via Joel Overbeck on Unsplash

Originally published: September 18, 2020
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