Pregnant women who had low socioeconomic status during childhood and who have poor family social support appear to prematurely age on a cellular level, potentially raising the risk for complications, a new study has found.
Researchers at The Ohio State University examined blood from pregnant women to evaluate the length of telomeres – structures at the end of chromosomes that are used by scientists as a measure of biological (as opposed to chronological) age. Shorter telomeres mean an older cellular age.
The researchers also asked the moms-to-be about stressors, including low socioeconomic status and trauma during their childhood and current social support.
They found that women who reported low socioeconomic status as kids and who struggled with family support as adults were biologically older, as indicated by shorter telomeres.
This study didn’t examine birth outcomes, but prompted the researchers to wonder if this rapid biological aging could put a woman at greater risk of premature delivery, gestational hypertension, preeclampsia and other problems.
The study included a racially diverse group of 81 pregnant women who were 25 years old on average. They were evaluated during each trimester of pregnancy and again about two months after delivery. Measures of trauma and low socioeconomic status during childhood, along with the measure of current social support, came from questionnaires the women filled out.
Family social support – but not support from partners or friends – emerged as a strong predictor of telomere length, as did low socioeconomic status during childhood.
Advanced maternal age is defined by doctors as 35 or older. It is well-understood that older mothers are at higher risk of having babies with medical and developmental challenges, and it is possible that this applies to moms with advanced cellular age as well.
Telomeres are caps on the ends of chromosomes that shorten as cells replicate – part of the natural aging process. Mitchell compared them to the plastic covering on the end of a shoelace.
The good news: Telomeres can also lengthen, lowering biological age.
For now, telomere assessment is strictly used for research purposes and not something that would translate into clinical practice.
But it’s possible that the knowledge gained by research into cellular aging could prompt useful interventions in obstetrics practices – including greater focus on moms’ psychological well-being and support systems.
The National Institutes of Health and National Center for Advancing Translational Sciences supported the study.