Feature

Health scare of the week: The toll of childhood violence

Researchers have found that bullying and other forms of abuse can permanently damage children’s DNA.

Bullying and other forms of abuse don’t just leave physical and psychological scars on children, a new Duke University study finds. They can also permanently damage children’s DNA, causing them to age prematurely and making them more prone to health problems later in life. Researchers examined telomeres—genetic material at the tips of chromosomes—in more than 100 young children who had been bullied at school, harmed by a parent, or exposed to domestic violence. They found that the more kinds of abuse the children had suffered, the faster their telomeres shortened—a biological effect that can damage the immune system and lead to rapid cellular aging. The findings suggest that “toxic stress” actually “gets ‘under the skin’ and into the genes,” University of Maryland professor Nathan Fox tells USA Today. Previous studies of adults have shown that smoking, obesity, and mental problems can all permanently shorten telomeres. While some childhood telomere damage may be reversible, “we think the health problems will probably be seen in later life,’’ says study author Idan Shalev. He warns that children with shortened telomeres because of exposure to violence could end up losing as much as a decade off their lives. 

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