Receptive Language Abilities for Females Exposed to Early Life Adversity: Modification by Epigenetic Age Acceleration at Midlife in a 30-year Prospective Cohort Study

J Gerontol B Psychol Sci Soc Sci. 2022 Oct 3;gbac158. doi: 10.1093/geronb/gbac158. Online ahead of print.


Objectives: Deviations from normative trajectories of receptive language abilities following early life adversity (ELA) may indicate an elevated risk for advanced cognitive aging and related morbidities. Accelerated epigenetic aging at midlife may further identify those at greatest risk for advanced cognitive aging following ELA. We examined whether accelerations in epigenetic aging at midlife can identify those individuals who demonstrated the greatest change in receptive language abilities following ELA.

Methods: Data were drawn from the Female Growth and Development Study (n = 86), a thirty-year prospective cohort study of females exposed to substantiated child sexual abuse (CSA), a severe ELA, and a non-CSA comparison condition. The Peabody Picture Vocabulary Test-Revised (PPVT-R) measured receptive language abilities on six occasions from childhood to mid-life. Interindividual differences in PPVT-R trajectories were examined in relation to CSA exposure and across five independent measures of epigenetic age acceleration derived from first (Horvath DNAmAge, Hannum DNAmAge) and second (GrimAge, PhenoAge, Dunedin Pace of Aging) generation epigenetic clocks.

Results: Quadratic growth models revealed that PPVT-R scores were significantly lower at age 25 for females exposed to CSA. Specifically, CSA exposed females had lower intercepts when GrimAge was accelerated and a smaller quadratic trend when PhenoAge was accelerated.

Discussion: ELA is associated with significant differences in development of receptive language abilities with the most pronounced differences observed for females with accelerated epigenetic ages at mid-life. These findings suggest that epigenetic age acceleration could serve as an indicator of differences in cognitive aging and portend to later adulthood cognitive functioning.

Keywords: Child sexual abuse; Early life adversity; cognitive aging; epigenetic age acceleration; receptive language abilities.