Stress over the lifespan is thought to promote accelerated aging and early disease. Telomere length is a marker of cell aging that appears to be one mediator of this relationship. Telomere length is associated with early adversity and with chronic stressors in adulthood in many studies. Although cumulative lifespan adversity should have bigger impacts than single events, it is also possible that adversity in childhood has larger effects on later life health than adult stressors, as suggested by models of biological embedding in early life. No studies have examined the individual vs. cumulative effects of childhood and adulthood adversities on adult telomere length. Here, we examined the relationship between cumulative childhood and adulthood adversity, adding up a range of severe financial, traumatic, and social exposures, as well as comparing them to each other, in relation to salivary telomere length. We examined 4,598 men and women from the US Health and Retirement Study. Single adversities tended to have nonsignificant relations with telomere length. In adjusted models, lifetime cumulative adversity predicted 6% greater odds of shorter telomere length. This result was mainly due to childhood adversity. In adjusted models for cumulative childhood adversity, the occurrence of each additional childhood event predicted 11% increased odds of having short telomeres. This result appeared mainly because of social/traumatic exposures rather than financial exposures. This study suggests that the shadow of childhood adversity may reach far into later adulthood in part through cellular aging.
Keywords: cellular aging; childhood adversity; lifespan adversity; telomeres.