A new study from Harvard University has linked childhood trauma with changes in how fast one experiences biological aging. Known as adverse events in early life, this trauma can vary and include things like neglect, living in poverty, violence in the household, and similar things. Past research has linked these experiences with poor health outcomes later in life; the latest study builds upon that, linking trauma and abuse with earlier puberty and more.
The new study zeroes in on specific types of adverse events in childhood and their link to changes in biological aging. The first type of adversity in childhood — trauma or violent experiences — was linked to faster brain development, more rapid cellular aging, and earlier onset of puberty.
In comparison, the second type of childhood adversity — things like neglect and poverty — wasn’t linked to these same biological aging changes. Rather, these experiences potentially cause alterations in cognitive and physical development that may include things like trouble learning and poorer memory, which may then result in poorer school performance, paving the way for a lifetime of struggles.
The various types of adversity can be split up into two different groups: deprivation-based, such as neglect, and threat-based, such as violence. The effects of these two different varieties of adversity differ, the new study reveals. The reasons for this may vary — the researchers say that earlier puberty in children exposed to violence may be nature’s way of enabling reproduction at a younger age, for example, given the risk their environment presents to their life.
The study’s first author Natalie Colich explained:
We now have these very early markers of biological aging that we can use as potential flags for kids who could be in trouble down the road. If you have a kid who comes into a pediatrician’s office and is showing precocious pubertal onset, you can first start to [ask] questions about the experiences this child had in early childhood and also know that this child is probably at risk for mental and physical health problems down the road.