Family Violence Leads to Shorter Telomeres in Children

First Posted: Jun 18, 2014 11:01 AM EDT

In a new finding, researchers found that violence within a family leaves a genetic imprint on the children.

Researchers at Tulane University found that children coming from fractured homes  are affected by domestic violence and are known to have shorter telomeres compared to those living in stable households.  Telomeres are the end of eukaryotic chromosomes that are implicated in both aging and cancer.

Telomeres and aging are linked to each other. They protect the ends of the chromosomes from fraying and sticking to each other. Studies conducted earlier have tied shorter telomeres to increases risk of certain chronic disease such as obesity, heart disease, cognitive decline, diabetes, mental illness and poor health in adulthood.

For this study the researchers collected genetic samples of 80 children between 5 and 15 in New Orleans and also interviewed parents in the home environment and also their exposure to adverse life events.

"Family-level stressors, such as witnessing a family member get hurt, created an environment that affected the DNA within the cells of the children," said lead author Dr. Stacy Drury, director of the Behavioral and Neurodevelopmental Genetics Laboratory at Tulane. "The greater the number of exposures these kids had in life, the shorter their telomeres were -- and this was after controlling for many other factors, including socioeconomic status, maternal education, parental age and the child's age."

The researchers also noticed that gender moderated the impact of family instability. Young girls were greatly affected by the traumatic family events and were also more likely to have shorter telomeres.  Whereas in boys a protective effect was seen, mothers who had higher levels of education had a positive link with telomere length but only in boys below age 10.

The finding was published in Pediatrics.

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