New research published in Psychoneuroendocrinology sheds light on the consequences of early life adversity on biological aging for pre-teens and adolescents. The findings indicate that over a 2 year period when adolescents were exposed to stressful life events and were less sexually mature than their peers, they were more likely to show evidence of accelerated biological aging.
Studies have established correlations between adverse early life experiences, such as childhood abuse or neglect, and mental and physical health concerns. A biological response may include early development, such as early menarche and accelerated hormonal fluctuations.
Early life adversity has been linked with accelerated biological aging, including shorter telomere length, advanced epigenetic age, earlier pubertal timing, and menarche. These factors have been found to contribute to all-cause mortality risks, such as cardiometabolic risks and cognitive decline as young people age rapidly.
Study author Jennifer Sumner and her colleagues recognized the importance of considering childhood and adolescent experiences regarding long-term health outcomes. This understanding can lead to interventions that aim to reduce the harmful impacts of early life adversity on health outcomes and encourage healthier development.
Researchers and practitioners may devise targeted therapies for the biological processes by understanding how early life adversity contributes to adverse health outcomes. Finally, the findings may highlight early intervention’s critical role in encouraging healthy development while decreasing future likelihood for negative health consequences later.
For their study, the researchers examined the association between stressful life events, epigenetic age acceleration, and adolescent mental health outcomes. The participants included 171 adolescents aged 8-16 and their caregivers who participated in an early life adversity research project focusing on psychopathology and emotion regulation.
The research team employed the UCLA Life Stress Interview to assess stressful life events between baseline and follow-up evaluations. The interview consists of a series of questions that cover a range of topics, including major life events, daily hassles, and chronic stressors. The information gathered during the interview can be used to assess an individual’s overall level of stress, identify specific stressors that may be contributing to psychological or physical symptoms.
The Horvath epigenetic clock was used to estimate epigenetic age using saliva samples at both evaluation points. In addition, data on pubertal age and depressive symptoms were also collected.
The results revealed evidence of stability over time for both epigenetic age and Tanner stage (sexual maturity development), with both metrics being positively correlated with each across time. Additionally, exposure to greater stressful experiences over time was found to be associated with change in biological age, specifically a higher rate of change in epigenetic age per calendar year.
Those experiencing higher stress over time experienced different rates of change in biological age measures than others; additionally, those who showed greater rates of change in epigenetic age showed increased rates of depressive symptoms. Finally, advanced epigenetic aging was linked with faster pubertal development among teenage girls.
This study’s results indicate that stressful life events may be connected with quicker biological and reproductive development. Further examination in larger prepubescent youth populations will confirm these results and help researchers gain a fuller picture of stress’ impact on development as well as mental health.
The study, “Stressful life events and accelerated biological aging over time in youth“, was authored by Jennifer A. Sumner, Xu Gao, Simone Gambazza, Christian K. Dye, Natalie L. Colich, Andrea A. Baccarelli, Monica Uddin, and Katie A. McLaughlin.