Early life adversity, pubertal timing, and epigenetic age acceleration in adulthood

Dev Psychobiol. 2021 Jul;63(5):890-902. doi: 10.1002/dev.22085. Epub 2021 Jan 10.


Background: Given associations linking early life adversity, pubertal timing, and biological aging, we examined the direct and indirect effects of early life trauma on adult biological aging (via age of menarche).

Methods: Participants were premenopausal women (N = 183). Path models evaluated whether early life trauma predicted early pubertal timing and thereby, adult epigenetic age acceleration (indexed via four epigenetic clocks: Horvath DNAm Age, Hannum DNAm Age, DNAm PhenoAge, and DNAm GrimAge). Secondary analyses explored the effects of type of trauma (abuse and neglect) and adult chronic stress status (caregiver of child with autism and non-caregiver).

Results: Early life trauma and earlier age at menarche independently predicted accelerated aging based on one of the four epigenetic clocks, DNAm GrimAge, though early life trauma was not associated with age of menarche. Childhood abuse, but not neglect, predicted faster epigenetic aging; results did not differ by chronic stress status.

Conclusions: Early trauma and early menarche appear to exert independent effects on DNAm GrimAge, which has been shown to be the strongest epigenetic predictor of mortality risk. This study identifies a potential correlate or determinant of accelerated epigenetic aging-menarcheal age. Future research should address the limitations of this study by using racially diverse samples.

Keywords: Adolescent; Aging; Early Experience; Stress.

Publication types

  • Research Support, N.I.H., Extramural

MeSH terms

  • Acceleration
  • Adult
  • Adverse Childhood Experiences*
  • Aging / genetics
  • DNA Methylation
  • Epigenesis, Genetic / genetics
  • Epigenomics / methods
  • Female
  • Humans