The issue of school bullying has garnered a lot of attention over the past few weeks, with a ratings controversy over the film “Bully” sparking renewed focus and support for victims. Bullying’s effects on mental health are well-known to anyone who faced it as a child, or still does. Now, however, researchers are claiming that its effects go far beyond that.
A new study released this week by Duke University researchers examined more than 200 children growing up in England and Wales. When looking at a type of DNA sequence called telomeres, the study found that exposure to violence during childhood, including bullying, correlated to a faster breakdown of that DNA in those children. That, in turn, can lead to faster aging, and more health problems later in life:
Telomeres are special DNA sequences found at the tips of our chromosomes; much like the plastic tips of shoelaces, they prevent our DNA from unraveling. Telomeres get shorter each time cells divide. That erosion places a limit on the length of time that a given cell can go on dividing. Emerging evidence suggests that telomeres are “master integrators,” connecting stress to biological age and associated diseases.
We showed, for the first time, that cumulative violence exposure is associated with accelerated telomere erosion, from age 5 to age 10 years, among children who experienced violence at a young age (e.g., domestic violence, frequent bullying or physical maltreatment by an adult). Children who were exposed to multiple forms of violence had the fastest telomere erosion rate.
As the researchers note, previous studies have linked increased stress to several health problems later in life. The reason for the link has been less clear, but the study authors hope that this will offer some insight into the mechanism behind it. At the very least, they write, this study “suggests new urgency for preventing harm to children.”