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Objectives: Exposure to adversity has been linked to accelerated biological aging, which in turn has been shown to predict numerous physical and mental health problems. In recent years, measures of DNA methylation-based epigenetic age––known as “epigenetic clocks”––have been used to estimate accelerated epigenetic aging. Although a small number of studies have found an effect of adversity exposure on epigenetic age in children, none have investigated if there are “sensitive periods” when adversity is most impactful.
Methods: Using data from the Avon Longitudinal Study of Parents and Children (ALSPAC; n = 973), we tested the prospective association between repeated measures of childhood exposure to seven types of adversity on epigenetic age assessed at age 7.5 using the Horvath and Hannum epigenetic clocks. With a Least Angle Regression variable selection procedure, we evaluated potential sensitive period effects.
Results: We found that exposure to abuse, financial hardship, or neighborhood disadvantage during sensitive periods in early and middle childhood best explained variability in the deviation of Hannum-based epigenetic age from chronological age, even after considering the role of adversity accumulation and recency. Secondary sex-stratified analyses identified particularly strong sensitive period effects. These effects were undetected in analyses comparing children “exposed” versus “unexposed” to adversity. We did not identify any associations between adversity and epigenetic age using the Horvath epigenetic clock.
Conclusions: Our results suggest that adversity may alter methylation processes in ways that either directly or indirectly perturb normal cellular aging and that these effects may be heightened during specific life stages.
- Epigenetic clock
- Sensitive periods