Women Who Were Abused in Childhood Are Found to Age Faster Genetically

Women who have experienced high levels of trauma in childhood, such as abuse by a parent, are biologically older at the epigenetic cellular level in adulthood than women of the same age who have not experienced such adversity, according to a new study by researchers at the University of California, San Francisco. Epigenetic “clocks” measure biological age, by examining methylation patterns at certain sites in the DNA of blood cells. An individual may be 40 years old and have cells that look more like those of someone who is 50 years old; conversely, a 40-year-old may have cells that look like those of someone 30 years old. Being epigenetically older than your chronological age, based on these measures, is associated with developing diseases, such as heart disease and cancer, at a younger age and with a shorter life span.

Researchers took blood from a large group of premenopausal women so that their biological ages could be calculated using epigenetic clocks. All the women were non-smokers and had no major diseases. The women were asked about the number of traumatic events that they had experienced before the age of 12. The level of trauma the women had experienced in childhood was associated with the age of their epigenetic clocks. The study also found that it was specifically abuse in early life that resulted in older epigenetic aging in adulthood, whereas physical neglect did not show the same relationship.

“Trauma in childhood appears to age immune cells at a more rapid pace,” said lead author Elissa J. Hamlat, a postdoctoral scholar at in the department of psychiatry and behavioral sciences, and the Center for Health and Community at the University of California, San Francisco. “This could be one reason why individuals who experience more adversity in early life are more likely to have serious mental and physical health problems as adults.”

Dr. Hamlat is a graduate of the University of California, Berkeley, where she majored in cognitive science. She holds a Ph.D. in clinical psychology from Temple University in Philadephia.

The full study, “Early Life Adversity, Pubertal Timing, and Epigenetic Age Acceleration in Adulthood,” was published on the website of the journal Developmental Psychobiology. It may be accessed here.

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