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 UC 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.
In the study, published Jan. 10 in Developmental Psychobiology, 183 premenopausal women completed blood draws 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, which are called adverse childhood experiences (ACEs). They also reported the age at which they began menstruating.
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. Other studies have similarly found that not all ACEs have similar effects – physical, sexual or emotional abuse may have more severe effects than neglect.