Prisons cause some incarcerated people to get older faster, according to research on Black prisoners.
Time spent in jail or prison can speed up the aging process by an average of 11 months past someone’s actual age, according to DNA research by University of Iowa Professor Mark Berg and his colleagues.
Experiencing violence in prison accelerated the aging process by more than two years, according to the Berg article published in the Journal of Health and Social Behavior.
“Thank God evolution gave us the tendency to be aroused and to flee,” Professor Berg said. “We still possess that, and we use it occasionally, but if it happens too much, it is very, very unhealthy.
“To my great surprise, we found very durable effects among a sample of people who are only looking at their fourth decade of life who otherwise should be healthy,” he said.
Berg said the studies should be taken into consideration during prison policy-making decisions. “And why is that?” he said. “Because these guys, basically, are leaving prison with an extended sentence.”
He said the data is “among the most extensively studied sample of adults in the United States.” The availability of data on the same subjects over time—tracking the children since they were in elementary school—allowed researchers to study the impacts of incarceration on age.
Researchers used DNA analysis to assess whether those 410 adults are biologically “older” than their calendar age. They tested for methylation levels in DNA, which can take its toll on the essential biological process of gene expression and can lead to accelerated aging and atrophy.
Accelerations to the aging process have been linked to factors in the environment like exposure to lead, air quality, drinking water and disease. So have physiological and psychological stressors, such as racial discrimination, Berg said. He referred to prison violence and a lack of privacy and autonomy as main stressors that impact the incarcerated.
The research team tried to rule out other factors that could explain the accelerated aging such as childhood trauma and smoking. They also ruled out factors that have the opposite effect on aging, like exercise. “We controlled for all of that, and no dice,” Berg said.
Berg hopes that, if nothing else, the research findings can help make prison less violent. “If we can do anything, we can make the places safer for them, which we show could bring a pretty big net benefit to their health,” he said.