We know that trauma has a significant psychological impact, but it has long-term biological consequences as well.
In the past we’ve talked about how trauma affects the body, such as increasing chances for irritable bowel syndrome. This is another case that exemplifies this effect, but this time, using telomeres.
As we’ve mentioned before, telomeres are protective caps that stabilize the ends of chromosomes and help regulate cellular aging.
As we get older, our telomeres get shorter until our cells eventually die. They’re sometimes used in research to determine “biological age” and can be a good marker of overall health.
Led by Janice Humphreys, PhD, RN from the University of California in San Francisco, a team recruited 41 women who were never abused, and 61 women who had experienced varying levels of intimate partner violence.
Abused women completed a survey about the type(s) of violence they experienced. Researchers also measured telomere length in all of the women.
In this study, intimate partner violence was directly correlated with telomere length − formerly abused women had significantly shorter telomeres than women who had never experienced abuse.
Not only that, but the women who suffered abuse were more likely to smoke cigarettes, and had significantly higher BMIs (body mass index, the ratio between height and weight). Thirty-three of the abused women were obese, compared to only two of the non-abused women.
Researchers also found that the type of abuse doesn’t matter − it’s the duration of the abuse that contributes to shorter telomeres.
Since the study used a matched-control design and was not randomized, we can not draw causal conclusions, but the correlations do give us insight into trauma and its effect on the body.
It certainly suggests that abuse and trauma can influence our bodies at the cellular level, even shortening the protective components of our chromosomes that affect cellular life span.
If we know how to treat the trauma that results from abusive relationships, we can help heal the mind and the body.
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Have you treated a patient who was in an abusive relationship? Please share your story below. What kind of interventions did you use? What outcomes did you see?