Does Stress During Pregnancy Affect Cellular Aging in Children and Does Race Matter? The answer is yes, according to a new study from UC San Francisco published Dec. 2 psychological medicine.
UCSF researchers followed 110 white and 112 black women, ages 10 to about 40, and their first child (mean age 8) to understand the impact of stress on women’s health and its impact on their children.
What they found surprised them. Financial stress during pregnancy, such as losing a job and being unable to pay bills, has been linked to accelerated cellular aging in white children but not in black children.
“Ours is the first study known to us that has examined the effects of stressor type and timing on this aspect of the health of white and black mothers and their children,” said the study’s lead author Stefanie Mayer, PhD, UCSF assistant professor of psychiatry at the Weill Institute for Neuroscience. “We can speculate as to the reasons for the findings, but the truth is that we need to do more research to understand them.”
Cell age can be measured by the length of telomeres, the protective DNA caps at the ends of chromosomes. Telomere length naturally shortens with age, and shorter telomeres predict earlier onset of diseases such as heart disease and diabetes, and earlier death.
Previous studies have shown that prenatal stressors are associated with shorter offspring telomeres, but these studies primarily involved white mothers. The UCSF study recruited an equal number of white and black mothers and examined how stressors encountered during adolescence (pre-pregnancy), pregnancy and throughout their lifespan affected their children’s telomeres.
No effect observed outside the prenatal period
The telomere effect in white children has only been observed for stressors during pregnancy – not during adolescence or throughout life. Non-financial stressors, such as divorce or the death of a loved one, had no observable effects on telomeres in children of either race.
While the reason for the difference in prenatal outcomes by race is unknown, the researchers offered several possibilities. One is that coping strategies developed by Black women may reduce the effects of maternal stress.
“We need to continue to study and understand how stress — and resilience to stress — is transmitted in Black mothers, as well as in other understudied racial/ethnic communities,” Mayer said. “Understanding how racial disparities in health arise and are transmitted across generations is a critical public health problem.”
Prenatal support is key
Further research is also needed to definitively understand if and how pregnancy stress affects telomeres in Black children, as the stress measures used in this study may not have captured Black women’s unique stressors such as discrimination and institutionalized racism, noted Elissa Epel , PhD, the senior author of the study and UCSF Professor of Psychiatry at the Weill Institute for Neurosciences.
“Given the racial disparities in health and the role of stress in other important health outcomes of pregnancy, such as birth weight and preterm delivery, it is vital to support all women during this crucial time,” Epel said. “We need to work harder to identify women with high levels of toxic stress and social adversity to provide interventions that not only address feelings of stress and depression, but also issues such as food insecurity, financial stress and housing instability.”
Mindfulness interventions can reduce stress and depression during pregnancy and for years afterward, UCSF researchers reported this week in a separate study.
Materials provided by University of California – San Francisco. Originally written by Jess Berthold. Note: Content can be edited for style and length.