Researchers at the Duke Institute for Genome Sciences and Policy have found that violence, aggression and abuse in the lives of children causes changes in their DNA that can lead to seven to ten years of premature aging. Other factors such as smoking, obesity, psychological disorders and stress have also been shown to damage DNA, which means we age biologically, not just chronologically. The body of an abused 4 year old, then would look biologically more like a 12 year old; a 12 year old more like a 20 year old. (1)
Researchers measured this cellular aging by looking at the telomeres (the ends of chromosomes). In much the same way that your shoelace caps keep your shoelaces from unraveling, telomeres keep DNA sequences intact. When cells divide, telomeres shorten until they can no longer divide any further. Idan Shalev, who serves as a post-doctoral researcher in psychology and neuroscience at Duke is the study's lead author. In today's Molecular Psychiatry he reports, “This is the first time it has been shown that our telomeres can shorten at a faster rate even at a really young age, while kids are still experiencing stress.”
Red indicates telomere placement on chromosomes.
Researchers analyzed DNA samples from twins at ages 5 and 10 and compared telomere length to three kinds of violence: domestic violence between the mother and her partner, being bullied frequently, and physical maltreatment by an adult. Mothers were interviewed when their children reached ages 5, 7, and 10 to create a cumulative record of exposure to violence.
The Duke team plans to continue this research by measuring the average length of telomeres in the twins after they become adults. Plans are underway to repeat the study among a second, older group of 1,000 individuals as a part of the Dunedin Study -- participants who have been under observation since their birth in New Zealand in the 1970s.
The study suggests that children who are exposed to violent and abusive situations can be expected to develop age-related diseases such as heart attacks or memory loss, 7 to 10 years earlier than peers who grew up in a peaceful parenting home. It is unknown whether or not these same children are resilient enough as they move into their adult years to have this physical DNA damage reversed. To address these questions, Shalev and colleagues plan to continue research with this particular group of children as well.
“Research on human stress genomics keeps throwing up amazing new facts about how stress can influence the human genome and shape our lives,” said Caspi, the Edward M. Arnett Professor of Psychology and Neuroscience. Charles Nelson, a professor of pediatrics and neuroscience at Harvard Medical School added, "The study confirms a small-but-growing number of studies suggesting that early childhood adversity imprints itself in our chromosomes."
DNA (double helix) structure of chromosomes.
In a 2011 study, Nelson and colleagues found shorter telomeres in Romanian children who had spent more time in institutions, compared with children sent to involved-parent foster care homes. Nathan Fox, a professor of human development at the University of Maryland and co-author of the 2011 paper explains, “We know that toxic stress is bad for you. This [study] provides a mechanism by which this type of stress gets ‘under the skin’ and into the genes.”
Terrie Moffitt, who co-authored the Duke research added, “An ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure. Some of the billions of dollars spent on diseases of aging such as diabetes, heart disease and dementia might be better invested in protecting children from harm.” We could not agree more!
The Duke study comes at a time when we are in a crisis of gentle parenting. Love Matters. And it matters significantly to the lives of our babies, our children, and the adults they become. Violence, abuse and aggression have no place in the homes or the lives of our children. None of us need to be especially informed of the monumental impact this has on human life in order to procreate. However, having a basic understanding of gentle parenting and the role it plays in human health and development may be crucial to ending the cycle of violence that many people today carry in their lives as parents. While the Duke study began with youngsters who were already past their rapid and vital years of brain formation, we have noted in research past that as early as the gestational months babies' brains and biological make-up are significantly impaired by violence, stress, neglect and mistreatment.
We encourage readers to look into the subject further - it is surely one that demands our attention, and something our children need us to understand.
(1) I Shalev, T E Moffitt, K Sugden, B Williams, R M Houts, A Danese, J Mill, L Arseneault and A Caspi. "Exposure to violence during childhood is associated with telomere erosion from 5 to 10 years of age: a longitudinal study." Molecular Psychiatry, (24 April 2012) doi:10.1038/mp.2012.32
*Indicates a 'must-read' book title
* Why Love Matters: How Affection Shapes a Baby's Brain [book]
* The Biology of Love [book]
* The Continuum Concept: In Search of Happiness Lost [book]
The Vital Touch [book]Primal Health [book]
Parenting for a Peaceful World [book]
Our Babies, Ourselves [book]
The Baby Bond [book]
The Science of Parenting: How today's brain research can help you raise healthy, emotionally balanced children [book]
Gentle Birth, Gentle Mothering [book]
Where are all the happy babies?
Why African Babies Don't Cry
Peaceful Parenting: Following Your Instincts
Attachment Parenting: Instinctive Care for Your Baby and Young Child [book]
Dr Sears: 10 Reasons Not to Hit Your ChildWhy Do We Spank Our Babies?
Infant Pain Impacts Adult Sensitivity
Early Spanking Increases Toddler Aggression, Lowers IQ Spanking Decreases Intelligence?
The No Spanking Page (alternative ideas to spanking)
Project No Spank
Natural Child / Jan Hunt
Love Our Children USA
Gentle Discipline Book Collection