Early life adversity and telomere length: a meta-analysis

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Early adversity, in the form of abuse, neglect, socioeconomic status and other adverse experiences, is associated with poor physical and mental health outcomes. To understand the biologic mechanisms underlying these associations, studies have evaluated the relationship between early adversity and telomere length, a marker of cellular senescence. Such results have varied in regard to the size and significance of this relationship. Using meta-analytic techniques, we aimed to clarify the relationship between early adversity and telomere length while exploring factors affecting the association, including adversity type, timing and study design. A comprehensive search in July 2016 of PubMed/MEDLINE, PsycINFO and Web of Science identified 2462 studies. Multiple reviewers appraised studies for inclusion or exclusion using a priori criteria; 3.9% met inclusion criteria. Data were extracted into a structured form; the Newcastle-Ottawa Scale assessed study quality, validity and bias. Forty-one studies (N = 30 773) met inclusion criteria. Early adversity and telomere length were significantly associated (Cohen's d effect size = -0.35; 95% CI, -0.46 to -0.24; P < 0.0001). Sensitivity analyses revealed no outlier effects. Adversity type and timing significantly impacted the association with telomere length (P < 0.0001 and P = 0.0025, respectively). Subgroup and meta-regression analyses revealed that medication use, medical or psychiatric conditions, case-control vs longitudinal study design, methodological factors, age and smoking significantly affected the relationship. Comprehensive evaluations of adversity demonstrated more extensive telomere length changes. These results suggest that early adversity may have long-lasting physiological consequences contributing to disease risk and biological aging.

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