Telomere length and early severe social deprivation: linking early adversity and cellular aging

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Tulane University, Harvard School of Public Health, Harvard University, University of Maryland

Young children who spend more time in institutional care at an early age showed signs of quicker biological aging, according to this study published in the journal Molecular Psychiatry.

Telomeres are nucleoprotein complexes and telomere shortening serves as a marker for aging.

Although telomere lengths have not been studied extensively in children, in adults shorter telomeres are known to coincide with increased rates of cardiovascular disease, elevated rates of cancer and cognitive decline.

The participants in this study were the children enrolled in the Bucharest Early Intervention project, which is a trial of foster care compared with institutional care in Romania. The 136 children included in the study were between 3 and 6 months of age.

The study showed a definitive association between early social deprivation (institutional care) and shorter telomere length in middle childhood. The association was stronger in the slightly older children, who were examined at 54 months of age, than the younger ones at 22 months of age.

In terms of gender, exposure to institutional care before 22 months of age was most predictive of late telomere length in females. In males, however, the exact opposite was true. The total time they spent in institutional care was more predictive of their telomere length in middle childhood.

These findings complement recent data than early childhood experiences, including abuse, childhood adversity and serious illness at a young age are associated with shorter relative telomere length in adults.

This study now suggest that one form of adversity is early exposure to social deprivation associated with a child being brought up in an institution.

There is currently a lot of evidence that early and chronic stress can have negative health impacts, but according to the study, the biological mechanism that translates stress into poor health is not yet well understood. Future studies are needed to examine exactly where telomere length fits in the picture, and to see whether early adverse experiences lead to continuous telomere decline, or an initial “scar” on telomere length that does not impact the rate of growth over a lifetime.

Nine pages, $32, abstract, free, www.nature.com/mp/journal/vaop/ncurrent/pdf/mp201153a.pdf.