The long-term sequelae of adverse early-life experiences have long been a focus in psychiatry, with a historic neurobiological emphasis on physiological systems that are demonstrably stress-responsive, such as the hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenal axis and neuroimmune function. However, there has been increasing recognition in the general medical literature that such sequelae might encompass more pervasive alterations in health status and physiology. Recent findings in telomere biology have suggested a new avenue for exploring the adverse health effects of childhood maltreatment. Telomere length in proliferative tissues declines with cell replication and the effect can be accelerated by such factors as inflammation, oxidative stress, radiation, and toxins. Reduced telomere length, as a proxy for cellular aging, has been associated with numerous chronic somatic diseases that are generally considered to be diseases of aging, such as diabetes, cancer, and heart disease. More recently, shorter telomeres have been demonstrated in several psychiatric conditions, particularly depression. Sustained psychosocial stress of a variety of types in adulthood appears to be associated with shorter telomeres. Now, emerging work suggests a robust, and perhaps dose-dependent, relationship with early-life stress. These findings present new opportunities to reconceptualize the complex relationships between experience, physical and psychiatric disease, and aging.
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