Study finds genetic impact of family violence

family violenceA study published by Tulane University School of Medicine has linked the environmental status of domestic violence and trauma as witnessed by children to their DNA. The epigenetic change serves as an imprint on the child’s DNA and takes the form of significantly shorter telomeres. Telomeres represent a cellular marker of aging.

The study was published in the Journal of Pediatrics and reveals that shorter telomeres are linked to higher risks for a number of adverse health conditions including heart disease, obesity, cognitive decline, diabetes and mental illness. In this study genetic samples were taken from 80 children aged 5-15 and their parents were interviewed about their home environment and adverse life event exposure.

“Family-level stressors, such as witnessing a family member get hurt, created an environment that affected the DNA within the cells of the children,” said lead author Dr. Stacy Drury, director of the Behavioral and Neurodevelopmental Genetics Laboratory at Tulane. “The greater the number of exposures these kids had in life, the shorter their telomeres were — and this was after controlling for many other factors, including socioeconomic status, maternal education, parental age and the child’s age.”

The study found that gender moderated the impact of family instability as did mothers who were educated. Traumatic family events were more detrimental to young girls as they were more likely to have shortened telomeres and boys who had educated mothers had a positive association with increased telomere length.


S. S. Drury, E. Mabile, Z. H. Brett, K. Esteves, E. Jones, E. A. Shirtcliff, K. P. Theall. The Association of Telomere Length With Family Violence and Disruption. PEDIATRICS, 2014; 134 (1): e128 DOI: 10.1542/peds.2013-3415

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