Tough childhoods and early aging linked, McMaster researchers in Hamilton find


Published January 31, 2023 at 7:48 pm

Note: this article delves into topics that may be triggering for some inTheHammer readers.

Getting dealt a hand full of ACEs — adverse childhood experiences — early in life can literally affect your DNA in a bad way.

A team of researchers working out of McMaster University in Hamilton say they have found a link that shows having a greater number of truly bad experiences as a child can speed up biological aging. They say doctors will have to promote healthy child development and strategize to increase awareness of those experiences. Doctors who treat adults who were affected by ACES will also have to build up trauma-informed care.

The Mac researchers, first author Divya Joshi and colleagues Andrea Gonzalez, David Lin, and Parminder Raina, pored over data from 1,445 subjects aged 45 to 85 years from the Canadian Longitudinal Study on Aging. The subjects provided blood samples and filled a 14-question self-report questionnaire on adverse childhood experiences.

“Adverse childhood experiences are associated with poor health outcomes in later life,” Joshi, a research associate in McMaster’s department of health research methods, evidence and impact, told “What we don’t know is the underlying mechanism through which early life adversity gets under the skin and gets biologically embedded, leading to poor health outcomes,”

The analysis focused on DNA methylation, which is the chemical reaction in which a small molecule is added to DNA or proteins. The results showed that being exposed to a greater number of ACEs was associated with aging faster in epigenetic terms. (Epigenetics is a research field that explores how environmental influences play into gene expression.)

“Exposure to ACEs may induce DNA methylation changes that may be persistent across the life course, especially in the absence of health interventions and behavioral interventions,” Joshi said.

“It is important that clinicians consider and implement trauma-informed care to support the health needs of individuals who have experienced adverse childhood experiences so that we can prevent the cascade of poor health outcomes in later life.”

Examples of an ACE can include exposure to physical, emotional, or sexual abuse, neglect, parental intimate partner violence, or poor parental mental health. The relatively small number of subjects limited the researchers’ ability to show a link between sped-up biological aging and distinct forms of adversity.

Raina, who was named a member of the Order of Canada last year, is a professor in Mac’s department of clinical epidemiology and biostatistics. Gonzalez is an assistant professor of psychiatry and behavioural neurosciences at McMaster.

Lin is based in Vancouver at the Centre for Molecular Medicine and Therapeutics at the British Columba Children’s Hospital Research Institute.

The researchers’ findings are available at

The aforementioned Canadian Longitudinal Study on Aging is a research platform with participants from all 10 provinces. It is following more than 50,000 recruited individuals who were between 45 and 85 at the time of recruitment (2011–15).

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