By using advanced epigenetic aging techniques and new data from older adults, a team of researchers found that being deprived of a nurturing childhood environment is associated with accelerated biological aging at older ages, according to a new paper led by Assistant Professor Lauren Schmitz.
Published in the American Journal of Epidemiology, the paper investigated relationships between early life adversity and DNA methylation alterations associated with aging. Commonly referred to as our epigenetic clock, this biomarker has become widely accepted as a measure of our biological age, which can differ from our chronological age due to lifestyle, environment, or genetic makeup.
“Although previous research has shown a relationship between early life adversity and epigenetic age acceleration among children, this study is among the first to connect the biological age of older adults with these types of early life experiences,” Schmitz said. “This could be an important insight into how childhood experiences may contribute to our mortality risk.”
This study used DNA samples and interview data for 842 adults between the ages 55 and 94 who were participating in the Multi-Ethnic Study of Atherosclerosis. It looked at generally accepted measures of early life adversity known as threat and deprivation. Threat involves physical, emotional, or sexual harm or the threat of harm. Deprivation involves the absence of appropriate physical or emotional stimulation or nurturance.
Experiences of socio-emotional or physical abuse and trauma in childhood have been linked to accelerated pubertal development, cellular aging, and compromised brain development, which may contribute to poorer mental and physical outcomes across the life course.
While earlier studies found a link between early life adversity involving threat and epigenetic age acceleration in children, this research shows that this relationship may not persist into adulthood. On the other hand, the relationship may develop for deprivation.
The study also found that smoking acted as a partial mediator in the association between deprivation in early life and accelerated epigenetic aging later in life, meaning that lifestyle behaviors may act as a downstream pathway linking childhood deprivation and biological aging.
“Epigenetic research is rapidly advancing in its ability to document the negative impacts of early life adversity on adult health and well-being. Recent studies have shown links between these childhood experiences and inflammation, metabolic functioning, biological aging, psychological disorders, and even mortality,’ Schmitz said. “Our hope is that this paper can contribute to this literature as we increase our understanding of how early life experiences may accelerate aging all the way down to a cellular level.”
Schmitz is a leader in the emerging field of epigenetic research. Her 2022 paper showed how Americans conceived during the Great Depression had advanced epigenetic aging later in life. She is also on a team of researchers that was recently awarded a prestigious National Institute on Aging R01 grant to use epigenetic and genetic data alongside social, contextual, and health data for a fuller picture of the aging process in the Malawi Longitudinal Study of Families and Health.