High stress levels before and during pregnancy may adversely affect a woman’s offspring by leading to pre-term births and faster aging in children, according to two studies released Monday by UCLA researchers.

One of the UCLA-led studies found that women who were suffering from high stress during the months and even years before conception had shorter pregnancies than other women and that thosewho experienced the highest levels of stress gave birth to infants whose time in utero was shorter by one week or more.

The study results, which are outlined in the journal Annals of Behavioral Medicine, stem from extensive in-home interviews with 360 mothers from largely low-income, racially diverse areas.

“Every day in the womb is important to fetal growth and development,” said Christine Dunkel Schetter, a professor of psychology and psychiatry and senior author of both studies. “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.”

She noted that premature birth rates are unusually high in the United States compared with other nations with similar resources and that low-income and African-American women have higher rates of pre-term births.

The second study — which followed 111 mothers from North Carolina, Illinois and Washington, D.C., and their children from preconception into early childhood — found that a woman’s stress prior to giving birth may accelerate her child’s biological aging, with researchers finding evidence that maternal stress adversely affects the length of a baby’s telomeres — the small pieces of DNA at the ends of chromosomes that act as protective caps.

Shortened telomeres have been linked to a higher risk of cancers, cardiovascular and other diseases, and earlier death, according to the researchers, whose findings were reported in this month’s journal Psychoneuroendocrinology.

“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, an associate professor of psychiatry and biobehavioral sciences at the Cousins Center for Psychoneuroimmunology, part of the Semel Institute for Neuroscience and Human Behavior at 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,” she said.

Carroll noted that an “important take-away from this work is that prenatal and preconception maternal health and well-being are critically important for the health of the infant.”

“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,” she added.

The studies were funded by the National Institutes of Health’s Eunice Kennedy Shriver National Institute of Child Health and Human Development, the National Institute of Mental Health and the National Institute for Nursing Research.

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