Traumatic experiences in early life can leave emotional scars. But a new study suggests that violence in childhood may leave a genetic mark as well. Researchers have found that children who are physically abused and bullied tend to have shorter telomeres—structures at the tips of chromosomes whose shrinkage has been linked to aging and disease.
Telomeres prevent DNA strands from unravelling, much like the plastic aglets on a shoelace. When cells divide, these structures grow shorter, limiting the number of times a cell can reproduce. For this reason, telomeres may reflect biological age. Research has found associations between stress and accelerated telomere loss, and shortened telomeres correlate with several health problems, including diabetes, dementia, and fatigue.
But the connection between telomere length and health and longevity is far from clear. “There’s a lot of doubt in the field,” notes Joao Passos, a cellular aging specialist at Newcastle University in the United Kingdom who was not involved in the research.
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