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Biological Clock of Aging Impacted by Pregnancy Stress

Posted on April 13, 2017, 6 a.m. in Mechanisms of Aging Aging Stress

Large-scale study reveals how the telomere length of newborns are affected by external factors.

The largest study to date has been conducted to determine if maternal stress endured while pregnant impacts the biological clock for the aging process. It appears as though the external factor of maternal stress during pregnancy impacts telomere length of newborns. Telomeres are critically important for the replication of cells. In layman's terms, this means that a mother who is stressed while pregnant will likely give birth to a child with an altered genetic makeup. This genetic makeup has the potential to eventually lead to premature biological aging as well as accompanying age-related diseases.

A Look at Telomeres

Telomeres are essential for the health of chromosomes. Telomeres tend to shorten with cell divisions and gradually reach a critical length. In turn, cellular death occurs, known as apoptosis or senescence. Telomeres slowly shorten across the aging process so the research team used telomere length (TL) as an indicator of the aging process. TL at the point of birth is an indication of biological aging and linked to age-related diseases.

Researchers have been trying to pinpoint factors that affect TL in babies for some time now. Environmental stimuli such as the sun's UV radiation and oxidative stress have been proven to play an important role in TL. Those who suffer from psychiatric and somatic disorders ranging from PTSD to depression often have abbreviated TL. A handful of studies have also found that there is a connection between TL and the type/amount of stress that mothers endure during pregnancy.

About the Study

The study was performed in Germany at the University of Heidelberg. The study's lead authors, Stephanie Witt and Tabea Send, work at the University's Central Institute of Mental Health. Their findings were recently published in Springer Nature's journal Neuropsychopharmacology. The study keyed in on maternal stress as it relates to offspring telomeres.

The research team gauged TL in 319 newborns as well as 318 mothers. The majority of the study's participants were Caucasian. The TL measurements took place at three obstetric clinics in Germany's Rhine-Neckar region. The study included questionnaires and interviews with the mothers. The questions pertained to lifestyle habits, aspects of the father, stresses the participants believe they endure and whether they suffer from psychological disorders. The mothers supplied saliva samples for the purposes of the study. The blood in the umbilical cord was also studied immediately after delivery.

The Results

The offspring of the mothers who endured heightened psychosocial stress throughout pregnancy had shorter telomeres. Yet the TL in the newborns of mothers who were plagued by psychological disorders throughout the course of their lifetime was not affected. Being subjected to stress during pregnancy did not influence the mother's TL. However, a lifetime psychological disorder resulted in diminished TL in mothers.

The research team also determined that females have longer telomeres than males. This determination supports prior evidence that TL significantly differs by sex at birth. It was also determined that the mother's smoking or lack of smoking during the pregnancy impacted her TL but not the TL of the newborn. Though the meaning of the differences in TL for health across posterity is unclear, the findings show that women should not be subjected to considerable amounts of stress during pregnancy.

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T Send, M Gilles, V Codd, I A C Wolf, S Bardtke, F Streit, J Strohmaier, J Frank, D Schendel, M W Sütterlin, M Denniff, M Laucht, N J Samani, M Deuschle, M Rietschel, S H Witt. Telomere Length in Newborns is Related to Maternal Stress During Pregnancy. Neuropsychopharmacology, 2017; DOI: 10.1038/npp.2017.73

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