Why Does Violence Affect Health?

Stress of violence may affect the health of cells in ways that affect long term health

/ Author:  / Reviewed by: Chris Galloway, M.D.

(RxWiki News) Experiencing violence as a child raises the risk of health problems later in life. A new study is trying to understand why this risk is higher.

The study found that exposure to violence appears to contribute to wearing down the part of DNA that protects your genetic material.

That gradual damage within your cells might be part of the reason that the stress of violence in childhood leads to more health problems later in life.

But, this is just one step towards understanding why violence has far-reaching health effects.

"Seek help if your child is a victim of violence."

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) estimate that about two-thirds of kids have at least one violent and stressful event in their life.

A violent event can be witnessing violence in the home, being a victim of a child abuse or being bullied.

Having these types of experiences raises the risk of health problems like depression, substance abuse, and heart problems.

Experiencing more than one, or repeated violence, raises the risks of health problems even more.

A study, led by Idan Shalev, a graduate student at the Department of Psychology and Neuroscience of Duke University, with senior scientist Avshalom Caspi, PhD, looked at how children’s DNA is affected by violence.

The researchers asked 236 kids if they had one or more violent experience. A violent experience was defined as witnessing their mother being victimized, being the victim of frequent bullying or physical abuse by an adult.

They looked at the length of telomeres for the children when they were 5-years-old and again when they were 10-years-old.

Telomeres are sections at the end of each DNA strand that do not code for any genes. They act a bit like a buffer at the end of each strand.

Telomeres get shorter at a steady rate as people age. Stress and poor health are thought to speed up the process of telomere shortening, known as telomere erosion.

The researchers found that kids who experienced two or more kinds of violence had more telomere erosion over five years than other kids.

When cells divide and copy their genes, the telomeres get a tiny bit shorter each time. This is because the copying process is complex and not perfect. The telomeres allow for some error in the copying process.

Early shortening of telomeres is thought to be part of the genetic link to some health problems – especially those related to aging.

The researchers concluded that their research supports the idea that the stress of being exposed to violence causes damage to the health of the body’s cells. These changes may contribute to health problems later in life.

This study did not look at how the faster telomere erosion was related to later health risks. More research is needed.

This study was published in April in Molecular Psychiatry. Conflicts of interest information was not available.

Reviewed by: 
Review Date: 
September 6, 2012
Last Updated:
September 11, 2012