To enhance the understanding of biological mechanisms connecting early adversity and negative health, we examine the association between family interpersonal violence and disruption and telomere length in youth. These specific exposures were selected because of their established links with negative health consequences across the life-course.
Children, age 5 to 15, were recruited from the greater New Orleans area, and exposure to family disruption and violence was assessed through caregiver report. Telomere length, from buccal cell DNA (buccal telomere length [bTL]), was determined by using monochrome multiplex quantitative real-time polymerase chain reaction. The association between bTL and adversity exposure was tested (n = 80).
Cumulative exposure to interpersonal violence and family disruption was correlated with bTL. Controlling for other sociodemographic factors, bTL was significantly shorter in children with higher exposure to family violence and disruption. Witnessing family violence exerted a particularly potent impact. A significant gender interaction was found (β = −0.0086, SE = 0.0031, z test= −2.79, P = .0053) and analysis revealed the effect only in girls.
bTL is a molecular biomarker of adversity and allostatic load that is detectable in childhood. The present results extend previous studies by demonstrating that telomeres are sensitive to adversity within the overarching family domain. These findings suggest that the family ecology may be an important target for interventions to reduce the biological impact of adversity in the lives of children.