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Predicting cellular aging following exposure to adversity: Does accumulation, recency, or developmental timing of exposure matter?

By Sandro Marini, Kathryn A. Davis, Thomas W Soare, Matthew Suderman, Andrew J Simpkin, Andrew D.A.C. Smith, Erika J Wolf, Caroline L. Relton, Erin C. Dunn

Posted 27 Jun 2018
bioRxiv DOI: 10.1101/355743

Exposure to adversity has been linked to accelerated biological aging, which in turn has been shown to predict numerous health problems, including neuropsychiatric disease. In recent years, measures of DNA methylation-based epigenetic age, known as epigenetic clocks, have been used to estimate accelerated epigenetic aging. Yet, few studies have been conducted in children. Using data from the Avon Longitudinal Study of Parents and Children (n=973), we explored the prospective association between repeated measures of childhood exposure to seven types of adversity on epigenetic age assessed at age 7 using the Horvath and Hannum epigenetic clocks. With a Least Angle Regression variable selection procedure, we evaluated the effects of the developmental timing, accumulation, and recency of adversity exposure. We found that exposure to sexual or physical abuse, financial stress, or neighborhood disadvantage during sensitive periods in early and middle childhood best explained variability in the deviation of the Hannum epigenetic age from the chronological age. Secondary sex-stratified analyses identified particularly strong sensitive period effects, such that by age 7, girls who were exposed to abuse at age 3.5 were biologically older than their unexposed peers by almost 2 months. These effects were undetected in analyses comparing children exposed versus unexposed to adversity. Our results suggest that exposure to adversity may alter methylation processes in ways that perturb normal cellular aging and that these effects may be heightened during sensitive periods in development. Research is needed to demonstrate the effect of accelerated epigenetic aging on negative health outcomes following childhood adversity exposure.

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