A traumatic childhood negatively impacts the mind, body, and soul, sometimes in irreversible ways. Scientists have shown that repeated adverse childhood experiences (ACEs) can cause profound changes in brain chemistry. They’ve also discovered that abusing or neglecting children also affects physical health. That’s because too many negative occurrences lead to a rise in cortisol levels. When this becomes a chronic condition, it creates imbalances and diseases in the mind and body.
Children’s brains resemble sponges, absorbing everything they see and hear in their environment. So, if they witness frequent negative events, it can cause long-term damage to their psychological health. Children need a relaxed, safe atmosphere to develop into strong, capable adults. They may suffer well into adulthood when they don’t receive adequate support and love.
In fact, scientists have found that children who experience trauma and violence often exhibit signs of premature aging. They age more rapidly than children who grow up in healthy environments, according to research from the American Psychological Association (APA). Their study analyzed three different biological aging markers: cellular aging, structural changes in the brain, and early puberty. After studying the data, they determined a link between all three signs and a traumatic childhood.
“Exposure to adversity in childhood is a powerful predictor of health outcomes later in life — not only mental health outcomes like depression and anxiety, but also physical health outcomes like cardiovascular disease, diabetes, and cancer,” said Katie McLaughlin, Ph.D., an associate professor of psychology at Harvard University and senior author of the study, in a press release. “Our study suggests that experiencing violence can make the body age more quickly at a biological level, which may help to explain that connection.”
The findings appeared in the journal Psychological Bulletin on August 3, 2020.
Study Shows How a Traumatic Childhood Can Accelerate Aging
Prior research didn’t find a clear connection between a traumatic childhood and premature aging. But, those studies lumped various adverse experiences, such as abuse, poverty, and neglect, into one category. Researchers also measured biological aging differently than in the latest study.
So, to achieve more accurate results, McLaughlin and her colleagues separated the types of adversity into two categories. They looked at threat-related adversity, such as violence and abusive situations, and deprivation-related trauma, like poverty and physical or emotional abandonment.
Next, the research team completed a meta-analysis of nearly 80 studies, which included over 116,000 participants. They discovered shocking results — a traumatic childhood mainly involving threat-related adversity like abuse or violence led to early puberty and premature aging. Children showed apparent signs of rapid aging at a biological level. Many had shortened telomeres — the small structures at the ends of our chromosomes that protect DNA.
As we age, our telomeres naturally get shorter due to cell division. Lifestyle factors such as smoking, lack of exercise, and a poor diet can cause telomeres to wear down more rapidly. Chronic stress from a traumatic childhood or demanding career can also cause accelerated aging. Interestingly, however, children in the study who only experienced deprivation-related trauma like poverty or neglect didn’t exhibit signs of premature aging.
The team performed a second analysis of 25 studies involving over 3,253 participants that investigated how a traumatic childhood impacts brain development. They discovered that childhood adversity reduced cortical thickness, a clear marker of premature aging. But, again, different types of trauma led to cortical thinning in various brain regions.
The researchers found that trauma and violence caused decreases in the ventromedial prefrontal cortex, an area associated with social and emotional processing. Deprivation-related trauma more frequently led to thinning of the frontoparietal, default mode, and visual networks. All of these brain regions are involved in cognitive and sensory processing.
Early Treatment for Childhood Trauma Is Key
Research shows that a traumatic childhood can cause lasting changes in brain chemistry and biological processes. But, according to McLaughlin, accelerated aging may have been advantageous to the survival of our species. Before modern times, we had to contend with numerous life-threatening situations, such as attacks from wild animals or competing tribes.
Living in such a violent world meant puberty occurred earlier so we could prioritize reproduction before an early death. Our brains developed faster to help us process and respond to immediate environmental threats, increasing our chances of survival. However, these evolutionary adaptations can cause severe physical and mental health problems in today’s world.
The latest study highlights the importance of early treatment for a traumatic childhood to prevent long-term health problems. All the research in the meta-analysis included accelerated aging in children and adolescents under age 18.
“The fact that we see such consistent evidence for faster aging at such a young age suggests that the biological mechanisms that contribute to health disparities are set in motion very early in life. This means that efforts to prevent these health disparities must also begin during childhood,” McLaughlin said.
She added that many evidence-based treatments exist that can help reverse or slow down the effects of childhood trauma.
“A critical next step is determining whether these psychosocial interventions might also be able to slow down this pattern of accelerated biological aging. If this is possible, we may be able to prevent many of the long-term health consequences of early-life adversity,” McLaughlin says.
It’s more effective to begin individual and group therapy in childhood. However, adults can still greatly benefit from psychological treatment, medications, and lifestyle changes to process and overcome a traumatic childhood. The first step involves forgiving your parents or guardians for what happened and practicing self-care and compassion. Having an honest conversation with your parents can also help you process painful emotions and perhaps mend the relationship.
Final Thoughts on the Research That Shows How a Traumatic Childhood Causes Early Aging
Discussions about childhood trauma have become more common, especially among younger generations. As the stigma surrounding trauma and mental illness diminishes, people feel more comfortable talking about their experiences. Research shows that talk therapy can help immensely with overcoming a traumatic childhood. However, a new study shows that early interventions for adverse childhood experiences have the greatest success.
If your child exhibits mental illness or trauma symptoms, please consider taking them to a psychologist or therapist. It will improve their mental health and could even give them a longer life.