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August 03, 2020

Childhood trauma may lead to early puberty and changes in brain structure

New research examines effects of violence and abuse on aging

Children's Health Abuse
Childhood abuse early aging Juan Pablo Serrano Arenas/Pexels

Children who endure abuse or violence are more likely to experience early puberty and cellular aging, according to research published by the American Psychological Association.

Children who endured abuse or violence in early childhood are more likely to show early signs of biological aging than kids who did not experience such trauma, a new study finds. 

Early-childhood abuse can lead to a variety of mental and physical health issues ranging from anxiety disorders and depression to cardiovascular disease and diabetes. Those associations may exist, in part, because violent trauma appears to expedite the biological process, according to research published by the American Psychological Association.

Early puberty and cellular aging have long been believed to occur in victims of childhood abuse, but previous research had revealed mixed evidence. Those studies examined various types of abuse at once, as well as several measures of aging. The latest research attempted to sort through all that. 

Researchers conducted two studies to examine the effects of childhood trauma on the biological aging process. They separated traumatic experiences into two categories: threatening traumas, such as abuse or violence, and deprivation-related traumas, such as neglect or poverty. 

In a meta-analysis of nearly 80 studies, researchers found that children who experienced violence or abuse were significantly more likely to experience early puberty and cellular aging. But the children who experienced deprivation-related traumas were not at higher risk for either signs of early aging. 

They also reviewed 25 studies that examined child victims and their cerebral cortex — the outer layer of the brain. The cortex plays an integral part in higher-functioning tasks, including speech, thinking and memory. Cortical thinking is linked with aging, and it also can lead to cognitive impairment later in life. 

Researchers found all types of trauma led to the thinning of the cortex. But the cortex areas that saw the most reduction differed based on trauma. Victims of abuse and violence experienced thinning in areas related to social and emotional processing. Those who experienced deprivation-related traumas experienced thinning in areas related to the five senses and cognition.

"There are numerous evidence-based treatments that can improve mental health in children who have experienced trauma," Harvard University researcher Katie McLaughlin said. "A critical next step is determining whether these psychosocial interventions might also be able to slow down this pattern of accelerated biological aging. If this is possible, we may be able to prevent many of the long-term health consequences of early-life adversity." 

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