Childhood adversity, such as neglect or abuse, can have long-lasting consequences that follow some people into adulthood. Neglect and abuse don’t just affect a person’s mental health, but can affect their physical health as well. For example, people who have experienced childhood trauma commonly have increased rates of obesity, HIV, and drug addiction. Scientists also speculate these childhood events can lead a person’s biological age to move quicker than their actual age, in a process called accelerated aging.
Researchers have developed indicators for measuring accelerated aging. These indicators, referred to as biomarkers, reveal what biological processes are going on inside the body. Examples of biomarkers include blood sugar levels and white blood cell counts. Doctors can use these biomarkers to assess a person’s health.
By measuring a patient’s biomarkers, researchers can calculate how much their age has been accelerated. This is called their phenotypic age. Phenotypic age is different from a person’s actual, or chronological age, and is more helpful in predicting age-related health issues. By determining how “old” someone is from their biomarkers, doctors can better determine age-related morbidities, such as dementia. They can also use a person’s phenotypic age to determine more appropriate treatments and preventative measures for existing illnesses.
In a recent study, scientists found childhood adversity was associated with accelerated aging. The scientists analyzed previously collected data from the UK Biobank, which included biomarkers that would determine the phenotypic age of 123,987 participants. They also looked at participants’ lifestyle indicators, such as body mass index, smoking habits, alcohol consumption, diet, and physical activity.
The scientists asked the participants to fill out forms recalling their experiences with childhood adversity, including neglect, physical or emotional abuse, and food insecurity. Scientists examined these factors to determine if childhood adversity affected a person’s phenotypic age or impacted their lifestyle choices.
The scientists found participants who faced childhood trauma, such as neglect or abuse, were more likely to engage in “coping behaviors.” These coping behaviors included reckless behavior, overeating, alcohol and drug use. These behaviors were also most commonly found in participants with accelerated aging.
The scientists determined phenotypic aging was happening at a rate of 12% to 42% faster than chronological aging in those who had experienced any form of childhood adversity. They found participants who were aging the “fastest” had also experienced physical abuse as children. The greater the difference between chronological age and phenotypic age, the more susceptible a person is to chronic illness, life threatening diseases, age-related illness, and premature death.
The scientists concluded childhood trauma is connected to both coping behaviors and accelerated aging, but they acknowledged limitations to their study. The population they used was mostly white, with a middle to high socioeconomic background, and therefore might not be applicable to all people. They also could have been given inaccurate information, if participants blocked out or misremembered the amount of trauma they had experienced. Lastly, the scientists did not consider the severity of childhood trauma, they only measured the amount of trauma a participant recalled.
The scientists suggested future research should explore how the severity of childhood trauma influences accelerated aging. They also suggested maintaining a healthy lifestyle could slow down phenotypic aging, so staying active, eating right, and seeking therapy could decrease the rate of accelerated aging in young people.