Researchers at Duke University studied the telomeres – the tip of chromosomes that protect them - in a group of children and found that those who had experienced trauma had their telomeres shorter than those that hadn’t. These chromosome tips, which can be viewed akin to shoelace tips, have been linked by scientists with aging and have been the subject of research for many scientists studying longevity.
Do you remember those stupid internet quizzes where you would input your date of birth and some random facts about you , and then a tombstone with your name and expected decease date popped out? We’ve all had our laughs with it, and even shrieked at the sight of some friends which took them too serious, but could science predict how long an individual is supposed to live? A lot of factors are at play, of course. An instance of myself that smokes and doesn’t exercise will most likely have a shorter life span than an instance that eats healthy, exercises and doesn’t come in contact with stress. But is there a sort of default life span hard coded in our very genes?
This hidden secret might lie in telomeres, located the ends of chromosomes which make up our genes. Scientists have found for a while that there’s a link between aging and telomeres, which become shorter and shorter with each cell division. Some people shorten their telemores more than others, but an undisputed fact is that these go only way with age – down.
Scientists at Duke University may have come across a new fact that’s startling and surprising at the same time, namely that trauma might accelerate telomere shortening. For their research, the scientists sampled genes from 5-year olds and then again when they turned ten. Some of this children, unfortunately, were subjected to physical abuse or bullying, or had witnessed adults engage in domestic violence.
“We found that children who experience multiple forms of violence had the fastest erosion of their telomeres, compared with children who experienced just one type of violence or did not experience violence at all,” says Idan Shalev, the study’s lead author.
Now, their study group might not be spread enough to deliberate a sound conclusion, but coupled with a separate study their findings don’t seem that far off. A study was conducted at Brigham and Women’s Hospital in Boston looked at a huge sample of 5,243 nurses nationwide and found that those suffering from phobias had significantly shorter telomeres than those who didn’t.
“The telomeres are essential for protecting chromosome ends,” says Carol Greider, a molecular biologist at the Johns Hopkins University and a pioneer telomere researcher awarded a share of the 2009 Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine. “When the telomere gets to be very, very short, there are consequences,” she says, noting the increased risk of age-related ailments.
Scientists have yet to come up with a pertinent explanation of how positive or negative experiences might influence telomere length, nevertheless a beckoning question arises – does destiny shape us or do we shape destiny?