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Early Experiences of Threat, but Not Deprivation, Are Associated With Accelerated Biological Aging in Children and Adolescents

Published:September 26, 2018DOI:https://doi.org/10.1016/j.biopsych.2018.09.008

      Abstract

      Background

      Recent conceptual models argue that early life adversity (ELA) accelerates development, which may contribute to poor mental and physical health outcomes. Evidence for accelerated development in youths comes from studies of telomere shortening or advanced pubertal development following circumscribed ELA experiences and neuroimaging studies of circuits involved in emotional processing. It is unclear whether all ELA is associated with accelerated development across global metrics of biological aging or whether this pattern emerges following specific adversity types.

      Methods

      In 247 children and adolescents 8 to 16 years of age with wide variability in ELA exposure, we evaluated the hypothesis that early environments characterized by threat, but not deprivation, would be associated with accelerated development across two global biological aging metrics: DNA methylation (DNAm) age and pubertal stage relative to chronological age. We also examined whether accelerated development explained associations of ELA with depressive symptoms and externalizing problems.

      Results

      Exposure to threat-related ELA (e.g., violence) was associated with accelerated DNAm age and advanced pubertal stage, but exposure to deprivation (e.g., neglect, food insecurity) was not. In models including both ELA types, threat-related ELA was uniquely associated with accelerated DNAm age (β = .18) and advanced pubertal stage (β = .28), whereas deprivation was uniquely associated with delayed pubertal stage (β = −.21). Older DNAm age was related to greater depressive symptoms, and a significant indirect effect of threat exposure on depressive symptoms was observed through DNAm age.

      Conclusions

      Early threat-related experiences are particularly associated with accelerated biological aging in youths, which may be a mechanism linking ELA with depressive symptoms.

      Keywords

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