Does stress during pregnancy impact children’s cell aging, and does race matter? The answer is yes, according to a new UC San Francisco study published Dec. 2 in Psychological Medicine.
UCSF researchers followed 110 white and 112 Black women from age 10 to about 40 as well as their first child (average age 8) to understand stress influences on the women’s health and its effects on their children.
What they found surprised them. Financial stress during pregnancy, such as job loss and the inability to pay bills, was linked to accelerated cellular aging of white children but not Black children.
“Ours is the first study we know of that examined effects of stressor type and timing on this aspect of health for white and Black mothers and their children,” said lead study author Stefanie Mayer, PhD, UCSF assistant professor of psychiatry at the Weill Institute for Neurosciences. “We can speculate on the reasons for the results, but the truth is we need to do more research to understand them.”
Cellular age can be measured by the length of one’s telomeres, the protective DNA caps at the end of chromosomes. Telomere length naturally shortens with age, and shorter telomeres predict earlier onset of illnesses such as heart disease and diabetes as well as earlier death.
Previous studies showed that prenatal stressors are linked to shorter offspring telomeres, but those studies comprised mostly white mothers. The UCSF study recruited an equal number of white and Black mothers, and examined how stressors that occurred during their adolescence (pre-pregnancy), pregnancy and throughout their lifespan affected their children’s telomeres.
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