Being bullied or physically abused isn’t just tough on kids emotionally — new research reveals it’s also rough on their bodies, making their DNA actually age faster than it otherwise would.

“Children who experience extreme violence at a young age have a biological age that is much older than other children,” says researcher Idan Shalev, a post-doctoral researcher in psychology and neuroscience at the Duke Institute for Genome Sciences & Policy in Durham, N.C.

This means if the cellular aging isn’t reversed, those kids would likely be at risk for premature death.

To learn how youth violence affects vulnerability to aging, the study authors focused on telomeres, tail-like sequences that cap the ends of our chromosomes. Telomere shortening is an indicator of cell aging, and previous studies have found that adults who experienced violence as children tended to have shorter telomeres than those who hadn’t experienced such trauma.

In the new study, the DNA of more than 200 children was tested at ages 5 and 10, and the research found that the kids who’d experienced two or more types of violence had significantly faster telomere shortening than the other children, probably as a result of cumulative stress.

“Now we have some evidence that indeed children’s immune-system aging can be adversely affected by severe stress early in childhood, a scar that could last possibly decades later,” said Elissa Epel, a health psychologist at the University of California, San Francisco, adding that the study underscores the importance of reducing violence in children’s lives.

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