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Childhood Trauma and Adult PTSD May Speed Aging

A preliminary study suggests a history of childhood trauma among adults displaying post-traumatic stress disorder may cause accelerated aging.

Researchers at the San Francisco VA Medical Center and the University of California, San Francisco discovered that individuals with PTSD had altered chromosomes.

For these individuals, the part of the chromosome called the telomere — a DNA-protein complex whose function is to protect the chromosome from damage and mutation — was shortened and thus damaged.

Short telomere length is associated with an increased risk of cancer, cardiovascular disease, and autoimmune and neurodegenerative diseases, as well as early death.

The study is found in the online Articles in Press section of the journal Biological Psychiatry.

In the investigation, the authors collected DNA samples from 43 adults with PTSD and 47 matched participants without PTSD.

Initial analysis showed that many of the subjects with PTSD had shorter telomere length than those without PTSD.

“This was striking to us, because the subjects were relatively young, with an average age of 30, and in good physical health,” said lead author Aoife O’Donovan, PhD. “Telomere length was significantly shorter than we might expect in such a group.”

The authors then looked at incidence of severe childhood trauma, including neglect, family violence, physical abuse, and sexual abuse.

They found that, among the subjects with PTSD, the more childhood trauma a subject had experienced, the higher the risk of shorter telomere length. “People who had multiple categories of childhood traumas had the shortest telomere length,” said O’Donovan.

In contrast, subjects with PTSD but without childhood trauma had telomere length equal to those of the matched healthy subjects.

The results are meaningful as they may explain why some people with PTSD are more susceptible to disease and have problems with aging. Also, people with cumulative bouts of PTSD may, as a result, have a shortening of telomeres.

According to O’Donovan, however, the major drawback of the study was that, because the subjects without PTSD did not in general have high levels of exposure to childhood traumas, the authors were “unable to tease apart the relative contributions of childhood trauma and adult PTSD to shorter telomere length.”

Follow-up research will look at telomere length in subjects with and without childhood trauma and with and without PTSD in adulthood. A central question to be investigated is if treatment of PTSD can retard the rate of telomere shortening and, as a result, slow the risk for diseases of aging?

Source: University of California, San Francisco

Childhood Trauma and Adult PTSD May Speed Aging

Rick Nauert PhD

Rick Nauert, PhDDr. Rick Nauert has over 25 years experience in clinical, administrative and academic healthcare. He is currently an associate professor for Rocky Mountain University of Health Professionals doctoral program in health promotion and wellness. Dr. Nauert began his career as a clinical physical therapist and served as a regional manager for a publicly traded multidisciplinary rehabilitation agency for 12 years. He has masters degrees in health-fitness management and healthcare administration and a doctoral degree from The University of Texas at Austin focused on health care informatics, health administration, health education and health policy. His research efforts included the area of telehealth with a specialty in disease management.

APA Reference
Nauert PhD, R. (2018). Childhood Trauma and Adult PTSD May Speed Aging. Psych Central. Retrieved on September 30, 2020, from
Scientifically Reviewed
Last updated: 8 Aug 2018 (Originally: 27 Apr 2011)
Last reviewed: By a member of our scientific advisory board on 8 Aug 2018
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