Burning Question

Does school bullying cause young victims to age prematurely?

A new study suggests that exposure to violence damages children's DNA, making them susceptible to the diseases of old age years before their peers

Bullying might make school kids old before their time... literally. In a new study published in the journal Molecular Psychiatry, scientists say that exposure to violence actually causes cells in the bodies of young victims to age at a faster rate than those of their peers, which could have a profound effect on their health years down the road. Here, a brief guide to the findings:

How can being bullied age you?Exposure to violence is, among other things, a form of stress. Like other stresses, it can elevate oxidation and inflammation in the body, says the study's lead author, Idan Shalev of Duke University's psychology and neuroscience department. This wears on cells, causing them to age faster.

Why do stressed cells age faster?Everything from smoking to radiation to psychological stresses can wear down telomeres, the special DNA sequences that cap chromosomes at each end like the plastic tips on shoelaces. When telomeres get too short and frayed, the cell dies — normally a natural part of biological aging. In this case, the researchers took DNA samples from 236 children at ages 5, 7, and 10, and found that telomeres in those exposed to domestic violence and/or bullying shortened much more quickly than in other kids.

What does that mean for bullied kids' health?If the pattern continues throughout life, these children could develop aging-related diseases, such as heart attacks or dementia, seven to 10 years before their peers. That could result in premature death.

Is there any hope of reversing this damage?Yes, Shalev says. Better nutrition, exercise, and stress reduction might be able to halt the damage, or even lengthen telomeres in rare cases. If nothing else, the researchers say, the study underscores the importance of doing more to protect children from bullying and abuse.Sources: Live Science, TIME, USA Today

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