An analysis of data from the Dunedin Multidisciplinary Health and Development study, a large longitudinal study in New Zealand, showed that participants with a history of antisocial behavior had a significantly faster pace of biological aging. When these individuals reached the calendar age of 45, they were on average 4.3 years older biologically compared to those who had lower levels of antisocial behavior. The study was published in the International Journal of Environmental Research and Public Health.
Antisocial behavior refers to actions that consistently violate social norms, disregard the rights of others, and often involve a lack of empathy or remorse. It involves behaviors such as deceitfulness, aggression, theft, violence, lying, and other behaviors that are harmful, manipulative, or exploitative towards others.
Antisocial behavior is typically associated with youth. This type of behavior starts between the ages of 8 and 14, peaks between 15 and 19, and usually becomes less frequent between the ages of 20 and 29. Although it becomes less common with age, it seems to have a lasting negative impact on health. Studies have shown that individuals who exhibit antisocial behaviors in their youth tend to have worse health outcomes as adults compared to their peers.
Another study found that individuals who had conduct problems in their youth use a higher level of healthcare services as adults. Additionally, individuals with a history of criminal convictions are more likely to die prematurely compared to those without such a history.
The researchers of this study, led by Stephanie Langevin, wanted to understand the potential reasons behind these health issues commonly found in people with a history of antisocial behavior. They hypothesized that individuals who displayed antisocial behavior in their youth might also show signs of accelerated aging by midlife. In other words, they might be aging faster than their peers. With this in mind, the researchers decided to investigate the biological age of individuals with a history of antisocial behavior.
When we talk about age in everyday conversation, we refer to calendar or chronological age, which is the number of years since birth. In contrast to this, biological age refers to an individual’s level of physiological and functional well-being. It takes into account factors such as genetics, lifestyle choices, and overall health to assess the condition of the body and its systems. Biological age can be measured using various biomarkers and physiological parameters, including blood pressure, cholesterol levels, lung function, hormone levels, immune system function, and telomere length.
To explore the possible link between a history of antisocial behavior and biological age, the researchers analyzed data from the Dunedin Multidisciplinary Health and Development Study. This study followed 1,037 participants who were born between April 1972 and March 1973 in Dunedin, New Zealand. The participants were assessed multiple times starting from the age of 3, with the final assessment occurring when they were 45 years old. The researchers collected data through interviews, examinations, official records, and questionnaires completed by parents, teachers, and peers.
For this study, the researchers divided the participants into four groups based on their levels of antisocial behavior throughout their lives. The groups were: life-course persistent antisocial behavior (those who exhibited antisocial behavior throughout their lives), adolescence-limited, childhood-limited, and low antisocial behavior life trajectory. The antisocial behaviors considered in the study included physical fighting, bullying, property destruction, lying, stealing, and chronic work absenteeism or truancy.
The researchers assessed biological age using 19 different biomarkers collected at ages 26, 32, 38, and 45. These biomarkers included measurements such as body mass index, waist-hip ratio, blood pressure, cholesterol levels, lung function, liver function, gum health, and various other factors. They also analyzed data on social hearing (the ability to hear in noisy environments), balance, gait speed, visual contrast sensitivity, cognitive ability (the Wechsler Adult Intelligence Scale-IV), facial age (rated by a panel of 8 raters), another measure of biological age based on a DNA methylation algorithm, and a number of other factors. They matched and compared these assessments done in adulthood with the same or similar assessments conducted when participants were children.
The results showed that participants in the low antisocial behavior life trajectory group aged 0.95 biological years for every calendar year. In contrast, all the other antisocial behavior groups aged faster. The childhood-limited and adolescence-limited antisocial behavior groups aged 1.03 biological years for every calendar year.
The life-course persistent antisocial behavior group, which had the highest levels of antisocial behavior throughout their lives, aged the fastest. They aged 1.17 biological years for every calendar year. By the age of 45, this accelerated aging amounted to an extra 4.3 years of biological aging compared to the low antisocial behavior life trajectory group. At age 45, the life-course antisocial trajectory group showed poorer social hearing and balance, slower gait speed, and lower cognitive functioning. The only measure they did not struggle with in midlife was visual contrast sensitivity.
The link between antisocial behavior and accelerated aging persisted even after accounting for factors such as poor childhood health, socioeconomic status, health in adulthood, and other variables. When facial age was considered, the life-course antisocial behavior individuals were also rated as looking the oldest.
“The findings of this cohort study suggest that a trajectory of life-course persistent antisocial behaviors is associated with accelerated aging at midlife, years before the typical onset of age-related diseases,” the researchers concluded. “Monitoring of individuals who engage in antisocial behaviors for signs of accelerated aging may have the potential to reduce health inequalities and improve offenders’ lives. Furthermore, study results suggest that juvenile and adult detention center-based health-promoting programs targeting modifiable health-risk behaviors may have the potential to prevent offenders from becoming high-need/high-cost health services users.”
The study makes an important contribution to the scientific understanding of the links between aging and behavior. However, it also has limitations that should be taken into account. Notably, all participants of the study were New Zealanders from a single settlement and all born within a one-year period. Studies on individuals from other cultures and other birth groups might not yield equal results.
The paper, “Life-Course Persistent Antisocial Behavior and Accelerated Biological Aging in a Longitudinal Birth Cohort”, was authored by Stephanie Langevin, Ashalom Caspi, J. C. Barnes, Grace Brennan, Richie Poulton, Suzanne C. Purdy, Sandhya Ramrakha, Peter T. Tanksley, Peter R. Thorne, Graham Wilson, and Terrie E. Moffitt.