Psychological trauma in childhood accelerates aging

According to a new study conducted by the American Psychological Association, children who have been exposed to violence and psychological trauma at an early age (before adulthood) show accelerated aging on three fronts: early puberty, faster cellular aging, and adverse changes in brain structure. The results were published in Psychological Bulletin.

Scientists were interested how childhood traumas are connected with aging in the future. In their new work, they considered two categories of psychological trauma - those that children suffered as a result of abuse and those that were associated with various kinds of deprivation, such as emotional neglect or poverty.

The team meta-analyzed 54 studies covering over 116,000 people. They found that children who were traumatized by physical and psychological abuse had earlier puberty, and also showed signs of accelerated aging at the cellular level, such as faster telomere shortening, the end chromosomes. However, children who were poor or deprived of parental care did not show such signs.

The scientists systematically reviewed 25 studies involving 3,253 people to examine how violence and deprivation in childhood affect brain development. They found that psychological trauma of any kind was associated with reduced cortical thickness, another sign of accelerated aging. Violence was associated with thinning of the ventromedial prefrontal cortex, which is involved in decision making, emotional processing, and regulation of social behavior. And various kinds of deprivation were associated with a reduction in the frontal-parietal area of the brain, which is involved in the processing of sensory information and the performance of various cognitive tasks.

According to the authors, accelerated aging in people who experienced psychological trauma in childhood can be an adaptive mechanism. In violent settings, for instance, achieving early puberty may increase the likelihood that people will multiply before they die, and faster brain development may help identify and respond to threats faster in the future. These evolutionary useful mechanisms, however, have serious implications for mental and physical health in adulthood.

"The fact that we have received such consistent evidence of faster aging at a younger age suggests that the biological mechanisms that contribute to health inequalities are being activated very early. It means that efforts to prevent such health inequalities must also begin in childhood," said Kathy McLaughlin, lead author of the study, PhD.

The next step for the research team will be to examine whether treatments aimed at children who have experienced trauma can help slow down or prevent the process of early aging.

Aug. 4, 2020, 11:23 a.m.

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