Stress alters kids’ chromosomes.

Nature reports on the deep damage suffered by kids in orphanages – not psychological, but down in their chromosomes:

Children who spent their early years in state-run Romanian orphanages have shorter telomeres than children who grew up in foster care, according to a study published today in Molecular Psychiatry.

Telomeres are the bits on the ends of chromosomes that keep them from getting damaged when cells reproduce. Damaged chromosomes basically mean damaged cells – some folks believe that protecting telomeres is the secret to preventing old age.

The study focused on 136 orphanage children aged between 6 and 30 months, half of whom were randomly assigned to foster families. The other half remained in orphanages.

The researchers obtained DNA samples from the children when they were between 6 and 10 years old, and measured the length of their telomeres. They found that the longer the children had spent in the orphanage in early childhood – before the age of four and half – the shorter their telomeres.

“It shows that being in institutional care affects children right down to the molecular level,” says clinical psychiatrist Stacy Drury of Tulane University in New Orleans, Louisiana, one of the lead authors on the study.

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