Orphaned Children Age Prematurely, Study Finds

17/5/2011 - A study of Romanian orphans found that children who spent more time in orphanages when young had shorter lifespans as a result of premature aging.

Hardships endured by children early on in life can lead to genetic damage that can prematurely age their DNA and cut short their lifespan, researchers studying Romanian orphans for more than a decade have found.

The study, known as the Bucharest Early Intervention Project (BEIP), studied 136 children who lived in Romania’s orphanages for varying periods of time. The BEIP began in 2000, when state orphanages were still common and the children studied. Around the time that the children were about two years old, some children were assigned to live in orphanages while others were sent to live with foster families.

During Communist rule, the country’s orphanages became infamous for their terrible conditions. Orphaned and abandoned children suffered extreme deprivation in these institutions, with less care and attention than most children.

While some children under three years old who are taken into care are returned to their biological parents, most children in Romania are either sent into to foster care or institutional care. As of 2009, there were about 290,000 orphans in Romania, according to United Nations sources.

The BEIP study found that Romanian children who spent their earliest years in orphanages had shorter telomeres than was usual for their age. Telomeres are the caps on the tips of chromosomes. These caps protect the chromosomes (which contain DNA) from damage.

The more time children spent in orphanages before the age of five, the shorter their telomeres were between the ages of six and ten.

Other variables the study did not consider were the conditions the child encountered in his or her mother’s womb.

Researchers believe that it is this early shortening of the telomeres that shortens life expectancy. This is because of the nature of telomeres in cell biology. Each time cells divide, the telomeres are shortened until they become so short that the cell can no longer divide and eventually dies.

The results of the study are important because, while previous studies have noted the link between shorter telomeres and adults who reported to have experienced childhood adversity, this is the first study to find such a link by studying children directly.

Earlier studies have also linked shorter telomeres to an elevated risk of diseases such as cardiovascular disease and cancers.

It is unclear whether or not time spent away from the orphanages in better conditions (such as foster and family-based care) can help repair telomere length. There have been studies that found that telomeres can be lengthened.

The results of the BEIP study will be published in this week's Molecular Psychiatry.