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Surprising Science

Exposure to Violence Changes Children’s DNA

The adage that children raised in rough households grow up fast has some fresh genetic evidence to support it, say Duke researchers who examined age markers in children’s DNA.

What’s the Latest Development?

The adage that children exposed to violence grow up faster has some fresh genetic evidence to support it. Examining data from a study that tracked 1,100 British families through the 1990s, researchers at Duke University have found that children exposed to two or more kinds of violence exhibited shorter telomeres, parts of our DNA that cap the ends of chromosomes and prevent them from unraveling. “They also get shorter as cells divide, meaning that the gradual loss of telomeres over time is a decent proxy for a person’s actual age.”

What’s the Big Idea?

Children who grow up in stressful home environments age faster than children reared by well-adjusted families. That means they are put at earlier risk for developing age-related diseases like heart disease, diabetes and dementia. The link between violence, telomere loss and age-related disease led Duke psychology professor Terrie Moffitt to conclude that early action is the key to preventing serious disease. “An ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure,” said Moffitt. “Some of the billions of dollars spent on diseases of aging…might be better invested in protecting children from harm.”

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