Sociology, Department of


ORCID IDs Blakelee R. Kemp

Date of this Version



Published in Journals of Gerontology: Biological Sciences (2020)



Copyright © 2020 Blakelee R. Kemp and Kenneth F. Ferraro. Published by Oxford University Press on behalf of The Gerontological Society of America. Used by permission.


Negative early-life exposures have been linked to a host of poor adult health outcomes, but are such early exposures associated with cellular senescence decades later? This study uses data from the Health and Retirement Study to examine the association between six childhood exposure domains (e.g., socioeconomic disadvantage, risky parental behavior) and a biomarker of aging, telomere length, among 4,935 respondents. Telomere length is obtained from DNA of cells found in saliva and is measured as the telomere repeat copy number to single gene copy number ratio (T/S). Men who as children were exposed to risky parental behaviors or who reported risky adolescent behaviors have shorter telomeres (b = −0.031, p = .052; b = −0.041, p = .045, respectively); however, these relationships are attenuated after adjusting for adult risks and resources. Among women, parental substance abuse is associated with shorter telomeres even after adjusting for adult risks and resources (b = −0.041, p = .005). In addition, men and women whose mother lived at least until the age of 85 have longer telomeres than those without a long-lived mother (b = 0.021, p = .045; b = 0.032, p = .005, respectively). Taken together, the ways in which early-life exposures are associated with adult telomeres vary for men and women.