Shortening of telomeres has long been linked to cellular ageing and chronic stress. Although the study was small, the results could be used to identify children at risk of various health problems early on.
'A little bit of stress is good, but too much stress, or chronic stress puts your body on high alert. And if your body is on high alert for so long, it starts to do damage to the organs', Dr Stacy Drury, lead author on the paper, explained to WDSU News.
The research team asked the parents of 80 children aged five to 15 years from New Orleans whether their children had ever witnessed family violence, suicide or whether a family member had been incarcerated. They also took cheek swabs from the children to determine telomere length.
Previous research has already linked adverse childhood events to health problems, ranging from depression to cardiovascular disease, in adults. 'The more adverse childhood events you have when you’re little, the greater the risk of pretty much any health condition when you get older', Dr Drury told the Washington Post.
However, the team led by Dr Drury aimed to find a biomarker, something measurable early on in childhood, to be able to tell which children were affected by their environment. 'They may look like they're bouncing back on the outside, but they may have scars', said Dr Drury.
The team also found that mothers' education could have a protective effect on children's DNA, especially for boys. This finding even held true in the children with high exposures to adverse events.
In the future, the team hope to confirm the results on a larger sample, as the current study was too small to find effects for subgroups of children. Importantly, the study also relied on parents to self-report unstable family situations. The team hope their results will eventually be used for targeted intervention and prevention of future disease.