A Hard Childhood Accelerates Kids’ Cellular Aging

By Carl Engelking | April 7, 2014 2:31 pm


In the musical “Annie,” a youthful Shirley Temple sings about the strenuous life of an orphan in “It’s the Hard Knock Life.” As it turns out, little Annie was wise beyond her years. A new study shows that children from stressful, disadvantaged social environments get kicked even at the cellular level, which may cause their cells to age faster than those of children from advantaged households.

Researchers examined boys’ telomeres, which are regions of DNA on the tips of each chromosome that protect the DNA from degradation. Telomeres shrink a little each time our cells divide, and shrinking telomeres are thought to be associated with the negative effects of aging. The new findings show that boys from severely disadvantaged circumstances suffer much faster telomere shrinkage than their well-off counterparts, which could lead to health problems and an earlier mortality.

Measuring Telomeres

Researchers examined DNA samples from 40 African-American boys—a subset chosen because African Americans are understudied, and because boys may be more sensitive than girls to harsh familial environments.

Half the boys had been raised in very disadvantaged environments, while the other half were raised in advantaged homes. Researchers used variables like family stability, income, and education to measure the harshness of an environment.

The results revealed stark differences between the boys at a cellular level. Overall, by the time boys reached the age of nine, their telomeres were 19 percent shorter if they were from severely disadvantaged circumstances.

Some other differences include:

  • having a mother with a high school education is associated with a 32 percent increase in telomere length;
  • doubling of a family’s income/needs ratio was linked to a 5 percent increase in telomeres;
  • multiple changes in family structure was associated with a 40 percent decline in telomere length.

“The social environment really conditions the way that these children are living, and their health,” study author Daniel Notterman told New Scientist. “The fact that these people have early telomere shortening by the age of 9 could be an argument for some people who want to intervene earlier in the lives of children, by getting them in school, for example.” Their findings were published today in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

Genetic Predisposition

Researchers also found that certain gene mutations could also make boys more sensitive to a stressful childhood. Those with certain mutations in the genes that code for neurotransmitters serotonin and dopamine had the longest telomeres in a nurturing environment, and the shortest in a harsh environment. Thus, these mutations seem to heighten a boy’s sensitivity to his environment.

Although researchers saw an association between telomere length and environment, it’s not yet clear whether early-life stress is actually causing the telomeres to shorten. However, Notterman told The Scientist  that he hopes social and behavioral scientists start assessing telomere length when studying the effects of environment on childhood development.

Notterman is moving forward with his telomere study by taking DNA samples from the same participants, who are now 15 years old.


Photo credit:  Concept Photo/Shutterstock

CATEGORIZED UNDER: Health & Medicine, select
MORE ABOUT: genes & health
  • Cyndi Deimler

    Shirley Temple was never in Annie

    • tblair

      Just shows you how ignorant the writer of this article is.

      • SixSixSix

        Obviously had a stressful childhood..

    • Peri Colucci

      actually yes, shirley temple DID star as annie, just probably not the one youre familiar with

      • Cyndi Deimler

        Please give the details! What year was it made? Who were her co-stars?

  • Linda Grant Walker

    Shirley Temple was in “Annie Orphan”

    • Cyndi Deimler

      I never heard of “Annie Orphan” Please give more info!

  • http://seaworld.com/ Shamoo

    this shouldn’t be a surprise to anyone… look at kids who grow up in the hood, a lot of these kids who are 15-16 can pass for being in their early 20s

  • Wm Russell

    Is it me, or is does the sample size seem a little small and not random?

  • Jesse

    This conclusion is erroneous and represents incomplete science. I grew up in the projects and have been stabbed 3 times, at 4, 12 and 14 years of age. I attended experimental university courses in Nucleonics at 10 which made me the ultra-nerd in the community. I studied 5 forms of martial arts to defend myself and my family, from the constant harassment since I had no parents around from 6 years of age. I was in more than 700 fights with drug dealers, criminals and other garbage in those 14 years, protecting my 3 younger siblings and never loss. To lose, meant death. My father was an alcoholic and drug user who didn’t go to school and couldn’t read, but whipped me with dog chains because I could. My mother was in and out of undiagnosed comas and sicknesses for most of my young life. I got my first full time job at 7 while still going to school and have been working ever since. These are just a few of the milder incidences. No one could have experienced more stress as a child. Most would give up on life so as to reduce this onslaught. Being surrounded by the affluent who made the rules that kept us in this environment, I thought it would be better to be raised in a war zone where at least most everyone is on the same level.

    My tested DNA consists of more than 30 recent nationalities, with primary attributes coming from Native American and European backgrounds. The average life span of my relatives is 100 years of age in general good health. There is no predisposition to any illnesses in my blood. My male side of the family usually die with jet black hair, and still work well into their 90’s.

    I don’t blame the increased wrinkles and being the first male to have white hair in my 30’s on the fact that we were poor, and my family life sucked or even the massive stress. This is because I learned how to handle stress, got better jobs, and helped my family out of that environment.

    I blame my early aging on the fact that we had to beg for food, clothing and shelter and lining up at food banks for unhealthy meals in the freezing cold. Nutrition wasn’t even considered. Being poor shouldn’t mean we have to eat crap. Our thoughts were only when and where our next meal would come from and whether our coughs were going to turn to pneumonia again. I blame the lack of funding given to the local schools which resulted in portables being built to accommodate our growing numbers. This created a dangerous environment of mold exposure which caused lung damage to most students, including myself. That same lack of funding meant less programs to interest students, no computers, musical instruments, or sport facilities to enhance the mind and body. I blame the lack of medical and dental attention given to the poor. It was out of the question to get proper medicines for our sicknesses, and forget about fixing any dental problems.

    The silliness of relating my mother’s educational background to my telomere length is absurd. My mother could be Einsteina, but if she could not provide for me, my health would still be at risk and result in the same early aging. The only thing my mother passed on to me is my button nose, and our compulsive neatness disorder. The environment of the poor makes everyone grow up fast. The rich can delay the process due to their advantages, but it has very little to do with their family relationships and what education level they have. I also wonder what the results would be if someone is taking a telomerase supplement or ingesting a lot of Astragalus.

    • Danny


    • Mary Thawley

      Awesome well-written truths. Thank you . Also notice the lack of women in this”study”. Almost every drug ever tested is tested on men-no women. So take every one of these studies with apparently”a little salt”-another thing even about that. What kind of salt? Lack of the Iodine in salt that people take…it’s such a changing thing. Doctors call themselves “practicing physicians”- wish they would stop “practicing” and get professional.

    • kirbeez80

      Wow, you poor, nerdy, dumb guy…

  • SHS

    You lost me at “Shirley Temple”….


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