Study Claims High-Stress Environments Can Change Kids’ DNA, Make them Vulnerable to Disease

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Children subjected to violence, physical and verbal abuse, and other forms of extreme stress while growing up develop changes in their DNA that leave them vulnerable to diabetes, heart disease, mental illness, and other diseases, according to a study published in Pediatrics.

The study, conducted by researchers from Tulane University School of Medicine, demonstrated that repetitive sequences of DNA known as telomeres shorten whenever a cell replicates. Since telomeres protect chromosomes from damage and abnormalities, shorter lengths of telomeres are associated with disease.

Subjects between the ages of 5 and 15 in the study who had been subjected to violence and other traumatic upheaval during childhood had shorter telomeres. The more stress the subjects had endured during childhood, the shorter their telomeres were.

Another recent study published in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences had similar findings, showing that children with difficult home lives had telomeres that were 19 percent shorter than children with more stable environments.

This research confirms the findings of the 1998 Adverse Childhood Experiences (ACE) study, conducted by Emory, Kaiser Permanente, the University of Arizona, and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), and published in the American Journal of Preventative Medicine, which found that adults who had grown up in an abusive household were 60 percent more likely to have diabetes, 2.5 percent more likely to suffer a stroke, and twice as likely to have heart disease or cancer than those who had grown up in stable households.

According to (, there are more than 3 million reports of child abuse, representing more than 6 million children, each year in the United States. That’s one every 10 seconds. Teens who endured violence or abuse during childhood are more likely to engage in risky sexual behaviors.

Roughly 25 percent of children who grew up in abusive households will experience teen pregnancy, and 30 percent of these abused or neglected children will grow up to become abusers, creating a cycle of violence and dysfunction.

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