People often say time heals everything but now as studies show experiencing abuse or violence early in life can lead to children showing signs of genetic and brain aging.
A study from the American Psychological Association shows a link between aging and early exposure to violence or trauma. It explains how experiencing such a traumatic event early in life can affect how our brains age for the rest of our lives. There are three indicators of aging biologically. One is the onset of puberty, the second is the aging process at the cellular level and the last is brain development.
Katie McLaughlin is a Ph.D., associate professor of psychology at Harvard University and a senior author of the study. She explains that exposure to difficulties or adversities in childhood is a strong indicator of health outcomes yet to come later in life. By this not only does she mean mental health outcomes such as anxiety or depressive disorders but also physicals health problems like cardiovascular disease, cancer, and diabetes.
She notes that a body can age faster biologically if it experiences violence at an early age.
This however is not the first time researchers are looking into the relationship between a difficult childhood and aging speeds. Regardless, this research observed different indicators of biological aging and the different sorts of adversity simultaneously like violence, neglect, abuse, and poverty. Although they found a link, they could not tell for sure what was specifically causing the aging.
To get a clearer picture of what happens, the team carried out a meta-analysis of about 80 studies. This meant that the data came from about 116,000 total participants. They then separated threat-related adversity that included violence and abuse and adversity related to deprivation such as poverty or neglect.
In children that experience some sort of threat-related trauma, researchers found that they were more likely to hit puberty early. The team explains they show signs of rapid cellular aging. The most prominent signs of this kind of aging were smaller telomeres, these are caps that protect the ends of DNA strands from breaking up.
In comparison, however, children who experience neglect or poverty do not show early indicators of brain aging.
To understand how adversity early in life affecter brain development later in life the team then further looked at the other 25 studies that had about 3,250 participants in total. They found that it did affect people in the way that it reduced cortical thickness which is an indicator of aging.
Cortices are responsible for the brain’s major processing power, including all of its other higher functions but as we grow older they degrade with age.
The team did however figure out the exact type of adversity that children experience that leads to thinning in a separate part of the cortex. They realized that violence and trauma affect the ventromedial prefrontal cortex specifically. This part of the brain is responsible for emotional and social processing.
Deprivation however is linked with the thining of the frontoparietal. This is the default mode that includes visual networks such as sensory information processors and networks responsible for other tasks.
McLaughlin believes this process takes place because maturing early could help make sure you survived in an environment full of threats and violence. Alternatively, achieving puberty early in such an environment could help people be able to reproduce earlier. Although such processes have their uses, in today’s world it can lead to complications in health in the later stages of life.
The team in its next step aims to investigate possible treatments that can be used on children who have gone through such a trauma, to help slow down or prevent altogether this sequence of early brain aging.