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Study Finds PTSD May Cause Premature Aging in the Brain

Brain scans.

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Key Takeaways

  • A new study shows post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) may affect the klotho gene, leading to premature aging in the brain.
  • Healthcare professionals believe understanding the link between PTSD and the klotho gene variant is critical in identifying new treatments.
  • While COVID-19 has inflammatory effects on the central nervous system, more studies are necessary to understand the direct correlation between COVID-19 and PTSD.

A new study shows an interaction between the mental health condition post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) and the klotho gene—a gene associated with longevity and the aging process—may cause premature aging in the brain.

The study results, published in October in the journal Neuropsychopharmacology, noted that, in addition to environmental factors, genetics may contribute to the rate of cellular aging, “causing some individuals to have a biological age that exceeds their chronological age."

“Both PTSD and klotho impact inflammation, cardiometabolic conditions and neurodegeneration, including Alzheimer's disease,” according to the study’s researchers. “Better understanding of how klotho and PTSD interact and the mechanisms linking both genes and traumatic stress to age-related health conditions is important for the development of novel therapeutics.”

So, what does this mean to the overall understanding of PTSD? Paul Kaloostian, MD, a neurosurgeon, and author based in Pasadena, California, who was not affiliated with the study, says these findings are especially important to mitigating the “unfortunate complications” of premature aging in people affected by PTSD. 

“As with almost every pathology affecting the human race, identifying the gene directly linked to that pathology is critical in order to halt and potentially reverse course,” Kaloostian tells Verywell. “Therefore, understanding this relationship between PTSD and klotho will allow further studies specifically aimed at identifying ways to alter or inhibit the klotho gene in such patients who are at risk.”

This information also allows patients and healthcare providers to be proactive in preventing neurodegenerative diseases, like Alzheimer's disease and Parkinson's disease, by implementing medication used to treat dementia patients.

PTSD and The Klotho Gene

Post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) is a disorder that develops in some people who have experienced a shocking, scary, or dangerous event, according to the National Institute of Mental Health (NIMH).

“This ‘fight-or-flight’ response is a typical reaction meant to protect a person from harm,” the NIMH website says. “Nearly everyone will experience a range of reactions after trauma, yet most people recover from initial symptoms naturally. Those who continue to experience problems may be diagnosed with PTSD. People who have PTSD may feel stressed or frightened, even when they are not in danger.”

For this study, researchers from the National Center for PTSD at VA Boston Healthcare System and Boston University School of Medicine examined data from individuals who donated their brains to the VA National PTSD Brain Bank. They found that older adults with PTSD showed evidence of accelerated epigenetic aging in brain tissue if they had the 'at risk' variant at a particular location in the klotho gene.

The potential for altering the klotho gene in at-risk patients with PTSD means “cellular aging of the neural tissue can potentially be reversed or stopped altogether,” Kaloostian says. “Understanding this direct relationship of PTSD with the klotho gene variant is critical in identifying pathways of direct inhibition in cellular function.”

Is There a Link Between PTSD and COVID-19? 

According to an August report published in The Clinical Neuropsychologist, “brain fog” and other neurological symptoms people experience after recovering from COVID-19 might be associated with post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).

“The history of past human coronavirus outbreaks resulting in similar health emergencies suggests there will be a substantial prevalence of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) among COVID-19 survivors,” the researchers noted in the study.

So, how does this new study contribute to the potential link between COVID-19 and rapid aging? 

“Based on the cases of COVID-19 described thus far, there is a clear indication of its effects on the central nervous system,” Kaloostian says. “For example, there are reports of blood-brain barrier disruption focally due to the virus’s inflammatory effects, which causes neuronal pathway dysfunction and neuronal cell death.”

Kaloostian notes symptoms reported correlate with the dysfunction of central cognitive function, and include:

  • Headaches
  • Altered mental status
  • Seizures
  • Ischemic and hemorrhage strokes with encephalitis
  • Dysexecutive syndromes (issues with cognitive functions)

“COVID-19, through its inflammatory effects on the central nervous system, irreversibly injures and at times results in neuronal cell death, due to its effects on disturbing the blood-brain barrier, leading to potential rapid aging of neural tissue,” he says. 

More studies, however, will be necessary to show the connection between PTSD and COVID-19, Kaloostian says, in order to further understand the direct correlation.

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  1. ScienceDaily. Study finds PTSD interacts with klotho gene, may cause premature aging in the brain. Updated October 26, 2020.

  2. Wolf, E.J., Chen, CD., Zhao, X. et al. Klotho, PTSD, and advanced epigenetic age in cortical tissue. Neuropsychopharmacol. (2020). doi:10.1038/s41386-020-00884-5

  3. National Institute of Mental Health. Post-traumatic stress disorder. Updated May 2019.

  4. Kaseda ET, Levine AJ. Post-traumatic stress disorder: A differential diagnostic consideration for COVID-19 survivors. The Clinical Neuropsychologist. 2020;34(7-8):1498-1514. doi:10.1080/13854046.2020.1811894