Pregnancy stress exposes children to early death

Parents want the best for their children. It is their wish that their sons and daughters will outlive them and enjoy fulfilling lives, as they realise their dreams and attain life desires.

Health experts note that making these wishes to come true is a journey that needs to begin before a child is born.

During pregnancy, parents should find ways of effectively managing stress as the condition can lead to adverse health effects throughout their lives.

A new study published in the Psychoneuroendocrinology Journal has found that a mother’s stress prior to giving birth may accelerate her child’s biological ageing.

According to the research, this happens as a result of the stress affecting parts of the baby’s DNA, known as telomeres, which influence the body’s ageing system.

Past research has shown that when these telomeres are shortened in size due to stress, they expose individuals to a higher risk of cancer and cardiovascular disease (like hypertension, heart ailments, heart attacks or strokes) that makes them vulnerable to early death.

“Research on aging is beginning to identify some factors that might put a person on an accelerated aging path, potentially leading to diseases of aging such as metabolic disorder and cardiovascular disease much earlier in life than would be expected,” said Judith Carroll, the lead author of the study and associate professor of psychiatry and bio-behavioural sciences at the University of California (UCLA).

“What our research tells us is that we may have early environmental and maternal factors influencing where a person starts in life, which may set them on course to age faster.”

During the study, the researchers followed 111 mothers and their children from preconception into early childhood.

Between the ages of three and five, the children provided cell samples from inside their cheeks, from which the researchers extracted DNA, including telomeres.

The team was then able to compare childhood telomere length with the stress measurements they had taken while the children were in the womb.

This allowed them to determine how maternal stress affects children from the time they are conceived and years later as they continue to grow and develop.

“Past studies looked at the telomere length of newborns after delivery. But our findings look at years later, when the child is three to five years old. We see evidence into childhood that telomere length continues to be shorter in those children exposed to maternal stress while in the womb. We think this finding is quite notable,” said Carroll.

A second UCLA-led study from the same research group found that women suffering from high stress (defined as feeling overwhelmed and unable to cope) during the months and even years before conception, had shorter pregnancies than other women.

The findings, published in the Annals of Behavioural Medicine Journal, showed that women who experienced the highest levels of stress gave birth to infants whose time in the womb was shorter by one week or more.

“Every day in the womb is important to foetal growth and development,” said Christine Dunkel Schetter, a senior author of the study and professor of psychology and psychiatry at UCLA.

“Premature infants have higher risk of adverse outcomes at birth and later in life than babies born later, including developmental disabilities and physical health problems. Preventing pre-term birth, with its adverse consequences for mothers and children worldwide is, therefore, a top priority,” she said.

The results of this second study were based on extensive in-home interviews with 360 mothers, many of who live near or below the poverty level in the United States.

In addition to collecting data on these women’s general stress levels, the interviewers obtained information about various types of environmental stress, including financial worries, job losses, a lack of food, chronic relationship troubles, parenting challenges, interpersonal violence and discrimination.

At the end of the study, the researchers found that women who were exposed to the lowest or highest amounts of stress in their environment had the shortest pregnancies, while women those who had a moderate level of environmental stress before conception had the longest pregnancies.

“Women exposed to moderate stressors in their environment may have developed coping strategies that serve them well, both before and during pregnancy,” said Nicole Mahrer, the lead author of the study who is an assistant professor of psychology at the University of La Verne. She worked at the UCLA during the research period.

“What we have not known until now is whether a mother’s psychosocial health before conception matters for her birth outcomes. This study is among the first to point out that, yes, it does matter,” said Dunkel.


These findings, she said, support the case for devoting more resources to programmes for preconception health and well-being.

The scientists say their research just scratches the surface of the impact of mothers’ preconception health and the foetal environment on biological factors that affect children’s health.

“If we as a society can make changes to help give pregnant women the resources they need and provide them with a safe and supportive environment before and during pregnancy, we may have a significant impact on the health of their children,” said Carroll.

To manage stress effectively, pregnant mothers or those planning to conceive are advised to embrace healthy diets, get sufficient sleep, exercise and staying positive at all times.

Performing deep breathing exercises, each day, can also help to calm the body and relieve stress.

Responding to stress in negative ways is discouraged. These include: withdrawing from people, sleeping to escape problems, skipping meals or eating junk food, and using alcohol and tobacco.

Instead, those affected are encouraged to surround themselves with loving and supportive people, as well as to reach out for help when feeling overwhelmed by the pregnancy.

Opening up and talking about the challenges with trusted family members, relatives and friends is helpful.

It is important to seek professional help from doctors or health practitioners if stressful experiences become persistent and overwhelming.

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