A study has come out that suggests childhood trauma and stress could raise the risk of having shorter telomeres on immune cells by the time a person reaches adulthood. Specifically, this finding is proposed to offer an additional explanation for how childhood events can influence health problems and mortality later in life.
In Brief: Telomeres
As mentioned previously, a telomere is a sort of cap on the end of a chromosome. The common analogy is the plastic bud that keeps shoelaces from unraveling, and the function is largely similar. Telomeres shrink over time and it is thought that their reduction and loss contributes to various types of disease, aging, and cell death. There is a great deal of debate and competing evidence in this area.
The Trauma Association
The researchers examined 4,598 men and women from the US Health and Retirement Study. The participants were questioned about different types of trauma and adversities (abuse, financial struggles, being wounded in combat, etc.) throughout their life and saliva samples were taken and checked for immune cells and telomere length. The main findings are as follows:
- A lifetime of cumulative adversities, when statistically adjusted, suggested 6% greater odds of having shorter telomeres, with the largest impact seeming to come from childhood traumas
- Every “additional” childhood adverse experience raised the odds of being in the “short telomere” category by 11%
- Financial adversities alone did not show a significant influence while traumas more indicative of psychological harm (physical abuse, parents with substance abuse problems, etc.) showed the strongest associations
- Shorter telomere length was interpreted by the researchers to be a sign of premature aging of the immune system
There are a few issues with the study that might affect the results, which the researchers acknowledged:
- Certain types of trauma (childhood abuse, etc.) are notoriously underreported, so there is a real risk that some people suffered traumas they did not report
- The limits of the study’s questions may not have been able to accurately capture adult traumas as effectively as childhood ones
- The inherent issues with self-reporting and memory, especially when adults are recalling childhood events
Additionally, there is the matter that there is a lot of variance in how different people handle stressful or traumatic events. Even if the quantity and types of events in the study are assumed to be 100% accurate, this doesn’t say anything about how those events actually stressed a person physiologically. This makes it hard to figure out how well the results can be generalized.
The study suggests that having more childhood trauma raises the likelihood of having shorter telomeres in immune cells upon adulthood. What this might mean, specifically, is unclear and beyond the parameters of the study.
Puterman, E., et. a., “Lifespan adversity and later adulthood telomere length in the nationally representative US Health and Retirement Study,” PNAS, 2016; 10.1073/pnas.1525602113.