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Childhood trauma can cause muscle decline in adult life

Experiencing trauma during childhood can have a lasting impact on muscle health in people of both sexes, according to a recent study.

The research suggests that childhood trauma can impair the muscle function of people as they age, essentially getting “under the skin” and affecting their well-being in the long term.

The study, led by Kate Duchowny, a scientist at the University of Michigan Institute for Social Research, examined the skeletal muscle function of older adults in conjunction with surveys about adverse events they had experienced during their childhood.

The findings revealed that individuals who reported one or more adverse childhood events had poorer muscle metabolism later in life compared to those who experienced fewer or no adverse events.

Examining muscle function and childhood trauma

The researchers utilized muscle tissue samples from 879 participants over the age of 70 who were part of the Study of Muscle, Mobility and Aging (SOMMA).

In addition to providing muscle and fat samples, as well as other biospecimens, the participants completed questionnaires, physical and cognitive assessments, and other tests.

The muscle biopsies were analyzed to determine two crucial aspects of muscular function: the production of adenosine triphosphate (ATP) and oxidative phosphorylation, a process that contributes to ATP production.

ATP, produced by organelles called mitochondria within cells, provides the chemical energy necessary for cellular function.

Assessing adverse childhood experiences

To gather data on adverse childhood experiences, the researchers used questionnaires that included questions such as:

  • “Did a close family member use drugs or alcohol in a way that caused you to worry?”
  • “Did an adult or parent in your household insult you or put you down?”
  • “Were you physically abused by a parent or adult in your household?”
  • “Did you feel loved, important or special in your family?”
  • “Were either of your parents absent for a portion of your life?”

Approximately 45% of the sample reported experiencing one or more adverse childhood events. Duchowny discovered that both males and females who reported these adverse experiences had poorer ATP max production. This indicated they were not producing as much ATP as those who had fewer or no adverse events in their childhood.

“What these results suggest is that these early formative childhood experiences have the ability to get under the skin and influence skeletal muscle mitochondria, which is important because mitochondrial function is related to a host of aging-related outcomes,” Duchowny emphasized.

“If you have compromised mitochondrial function, that doesn’t bode well for a range of health outcomes, including everything from chronic conditions to physical function and disability limitations,” she noted.

Analyzing muscle bioenergetics

Study co-author Anthony Molina, professor of medicine at the University of California San Diego, contributed his expertise in muscle bioenergetics to the research. The team examined images of participants’ muscles taken during exercise and rest inside an MRI machine.

Using a technique called 31 PMR spectroscopy, they determined the rate of ATP synthesis by observing how quickly the muscle synthesized ATP after being depleted by exercise.

Additionally, the researchers analyzed muscle biopsies from the participants. They separated the fiber bundles that make up the muscle and examined them using high-resolution mitochondrial respirometry.

This technique allowed them to measure the oxygen consumption rate in the muscle fiber bundle and generate a precise readout of muscle mitochondrial function.

“You can think about oxygen consumption rate as a way to measure the flow of electrons that’s going through the electron transport train, and it’s these electrons that generate the membrane potential that drives the synthesis of ATP. It’s a really precise way of assessing mitochondrial bioenergetic capacity,” Molina explained.

Childhood trauma and healthy muscle aging

Previous studies have demonstrated that these measures of muscle function are closely related to the physical abilities of older adults.

The researchers emphasize that the effects of childhood adverse events remained significant even after controlling for other factors that could potentially impact muscle function, such as age, gender, educational attainment, parental education, body mass index, number of depressive symptoms, smoking status, and physical activity.

“All of my previous studies have been focused on contemporaneous measures: mitochondria and physical function, mitochondria and cognitive function. These studies have shown that these measures are strongly related to our strength, fitness and numerous conditions that impact physical ability,” Molina said, highlighting the novelty of the study.

“I’ve also shown that these measures are related to cognitive ability and dementia. But here’s the first time we’re looking backwards, at what kinds of things that could lead to those differences in mitochondrial function that we know can drive differences in healthy aging outcomes among older adults,” she concluded.

Addressing and preventing adverse childhood experiences

In summary, this important study unveils the long-lasting impact of childhood trauma on physical health, particularly muscle function, in later life.

By examining the muscle tissue of older adults and analyzing their experiences of childhood adversity, the study establishes a clear link between early life experiences and the cellular processes that influence healthy aging.

The findings emphasize the critical importance of addressing and preventing adverse childhood experiences to promote better health outcomes in older age.

This research provides new pathways for understanding the complex interplay between early life events and the biological mechanisms that shape our well-being throughout life, ultimately paving the way for interventions that can mitigate the long-term effects of childhood trauma and foster healthier aging for all.

The full study was published in the journal Science Advances.


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