It makes a sad situation even sadder.
New research confirms that children exposed to violence are not only left with bruises on their skin, but with changes to their DNA that are equivalent to seven to 10 years of premature aging.
According to the study, which was published in a journal called Molecular Psychiatry
, exposure to violence altered a portion of children's chromosomes, called telomeres. Telomeres are special DNA sequences that are sort of like the plastic tips on a shoelace — they hold everything together and prevent the DNA from unraveling. Telomeres get shorter each time a cell divides, until that time when the cell can't divide anymore and it dies. This is a natural part of aging. But several factors have been found to prematurely
shorten telomeres, such as smoking, exposure to radiation and psychological stresses such as chronic depression.
For this study, researchers looked at the chromosomes of children to determine whether exposure to violence could make children's telomeres shorten prematurely. They interviewed the mothers of 236 children at ages 5, 7 and 10, to determine whether the children had been exposed to domestic violence between the mother and her partner, physical maltreatment by an adult, or bullying. Researchers then measured the children's telomeres — by swabbing the insides of their cheeks — at ages 5 and 10.
The results? Children who were exposed to two or more types of violence experienced the most rapid shortening of telomeres. These children might experience signs of aging, such as heart disease and memory loss, as early as seven to 10 years sooner than their peers.
But the study was not without hope. Researchers found that with better nutrition, exercise and stress reduction, it is possible for telomeres to lengthen and for the children to reverse the damage caused to their DNA.