May 1st, 2012

Exposure to Violence, Bullying & Stress Shortens Life via Telomere Erosion


Anyone who has heard a WBI speech or attended Workplace Bullying University since 2010 has heard me talk extensively about the danger of shortened telomeres (the protective caps at the ends of our DNA chromosomes that allow cells to replicate and keep us young). Elizabeth Blackburn, of UCSF, showed that chronically stressed mothers of special needs children probably have a shorter life expectancy (a loss of between 9 and 12 years) than other mothers from shortened telomeres. Her discovery earned her a 2009 Nobel Prize for Medicine & Physiology.

A new longitudinal study published April 24 in Molecular Psychiatry found that children who experienced early-life stressors at age 5 — maternal domestic violence, frequent bullying victimization, or maltreatment by adults — suffered significantly more telomere erosion at age 10 than peers not exposed to stressful violence.

This area of research suggests this demonstrated (not theoretical) causal chain of events:

Chronic (unending, unremitting) exposure to stress LEADS TO the physiological human stress response PART OF WHICH IS the erosion of telomeres THAT CAUSES disruption of cellular replication and LEADS TO acceleration of aging, stress-related disease morbidity (cardiovascular, etc.), mortality (death).

The exact reasons that telomeres erode in response to stress are not known. The two most popular hypotheses are (1) damage by oxidative stress, as demonstrated by experiments showing increased erosion under conditions of high reactive oxygen species in vitro, and (2) inflammation. Inflammation is associated with increased proliferation of immune cells and, as a consequence, with more telomere erosion. In turn, the enzyme, telomerase, can lengthen and restore eroded telomeres.

The new study by Idan Shalev and others at Duke University hypothesized that if cumulative stress in children causes telomere damage, then in future years the prevalence of later-life health problems can be tracked and perhaps attributed to the stress exposure. The researchers also wanted to confirm or deny if the cellular damage occurs during childhood exposure.

Shortened telomeres increase susceptibility to diseases.

Children from a British sample of 1,116 sets of same-sex twins born in 1994-95 had provided DNA samples at age 5 and 10. In addition, from interviews with caregivers, the children’s exposure to violence was assessed at ages 5, 7 and 10. Shalev used 246 children, all identical twins living near London.

The length of telomeres were shorter in all children at age 10. A normal DNA cell divides itself 50-60 times before shutting down because the telomeres are so small. When the cap erodes, the strands of DNA unravel like a frayed shoestring.

Sadly, there were 39 children exposed to two or more types of violence (domestic violence, bullying) in the years since age 5 and they had the shortest telomeres. Researchers controlled for the potentially confounding factors of sex, socioeconomic status and body mass index. Shalev told Los Angeles Times reporter Eryn Brown, that their lives may be shortened by 7 to 10 years.

Thus, the greatest damage occurs when stress has multiple sources and is cumulative — not from a single event.

Here’s the reference for the scientific article:
I Shalev, T E Moffitt, K Sugden, B Williams, R M Houts, A Danese, J Mill, L Arseneault and A Casp. Exposure to violence during childhood is associated with telomere erosion from 5 to 10 years of age: A longitudinal study. Molecular Psychiatry , (24 April 2012) | doi:10.1038/mp.2012.32

Of course, the researchers will want to follow the children into later life, recording telomere lengths and the onset of health problems akin to the famous Whitehall study that tracked job strain and subsequent health impact in British government workers for 40 years.

Bullied targets can certainly sympathize with the experience of chronic stress endured by the most seriously affected children in this new study, as they could understand the unremitting strain associated with raising children with extraordinary demands. To be bullied is to live with chronic stress until the employer or unemployment provides relief. What all people, regardless of age, share when forced to live involuntarily with violence is an undeniable shortening of their lives without having the ability to stop the health-impairing acts by the violent others.

If you are being bullied. Stop ruminating about the bully’s motivation. Stop trying to rehearse cute comeback lines. Get to safety. Seek medical attention for stress. Compel your employer to make you safe or get out. Your life may depend on it. No exaggeration!!

And to all those who tell targets — children and adults — to thicken their skin, suffer in silence, give in to authorities who refuse to provide safety …. I wish they could experience that stress for just 3 months to see how “tough” they are.

Violence and abuse inflicted by humans on humans is inhumane. For God’s sake, NO ONE has the right to shorten another person’s life.

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This entry was posted on Tuesday, May 1st, 2012 at 4:16 pm and is filed under Bullying-Related Research, Employers Gone Wild: Doing Bad Things, Neuroscience & Genetics, Tutorials About Bullying. You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0 feed. You can leave a response, or trackback from your own site.



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  1. [...] researching telomeres in children. They have  discovered that those who experience violence and bullying have shorter telomeres than their more stable peers. To be bullied is to live with chronic stress, [...]

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