Background: It has been shown that severe stress in childhood is harmful to later health. New research aims to ascertain whether – and if so, how – the telomeres, the protective caps at the end of our chromosomes, may be one of the links between this type of experience and later morbidity. Here we present an overview of studies which have examined the association between stress in childhood and length of telomeres.
Method: The review encompasses 26 original studies found through a literature search in PubMed. We included studies of the relationship between length of telomeres and various stress-inducing factors from conception throughout childhood and adolescence.
Results: The studies were grouped into four topics. The empirical research base for mother's stress in pregnancy and parents' ability to care for their children is too small to draw any conclusions. Psychosocial stress in childhood was associated with shorter telomere length in 12 of 14 studies. Socioeconomic status in childhood was not unequivocally associated with telomere length.
Interpretation: Shorter telomeres are possibly associated with psychosocial stress in childhood. This field of research is still new, and more longitudinal studies are needed with an emphasis on childhood experiences and coordination of measurement variables and results measurement in order to confirm this association.