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Myrhaf

Trauma and Aging

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An acquaintance of mine was paralyzed from the neck down. Someone who saw him in the hopital said he looked like an old man even though he was only 42. Also, one reads (mostly in fiction) about someone's hair turning white "overnight."

Can trauma radically accelerate aging?

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Dear Myrhaf,

The short answer to your question is 'not literally'; however, I have also heard of a person's hair turning completely white overnight (either a second- or third-hand account).

In order to provide a more systematic, less anecdotal answer, I turned to the medical literature and read a report entitled "Aging, gender, and spinal cord injury", by M. A. McColl et al. (Archives of Physical Medicine and Rehabilitation, Vol. 85, pp. 363-7, 2004). The subjects of the study were 67 men and 67 women, aged 40-80, with spinal cord injury (SCI) (paraplegia or quadriplegia) for 20-50 years. The data in the report were based on questionnaires - in other words, at least I was able to get one step beyond the level of anecdotal evidence. The main conclusion of this report was that: "women characterized their aging experience as 'accelerated,' while men characterized it as 'complicated.'" In another report by the same researchers (Archives of Physical Medicine and Rehabilitation, Vol. 84, pp. 1137-44, 2003), involving a larger group of patients, questionnaires indicated that a longer duration of disability diminished the perception of aging more quickly, but increased the perception that aging would be more difficult or 'complicated'.

Moving one additional step away from the anecdotal level, K. Imai et al. (Industrial Health, Vol. 42, pp. 213-8, 2004) quantified causes of death in SCI patients. I did not have access to the full text of their article, but the Abstract states that mortality rates from skin and bladder cancer were significantly higher than those of the general population. Thus, both the causes and effects of aging and SCI are different. These differences in outcomes would have to be considered by anyone planning to use trauma as a research model for accelerated aging.

My general conclusion is that trauma, specifically spinal cord injury, may bear some superficial resemblance to aging, both being destructive processes, but I am not aware of a more fundamental connection than that.

Sincerely,

RJM

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