Science discovers Motherhood could be making you older

New research shows childbirth may age women more than smoking and obesity.

Many mothers will agree that children make you feel significantly older. Now, scientists at George Mason University in Virginia have backed that feeling up with extensive research on how childbirth shortens telomeres.

Telomeres are the ‘caps’ at the end of our chromosomes. The shortening of our telomeres is a well-known indicator of cellular aging.

In a study published in New Scientist, the scientists analysed data from the National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey (NHANES) – a broad cross-sectional study charting the wellness of people in the US over time.

They found that analysis of DNA collected from nearly 2,000 reproductive age women shows that those who had given birth had evidence of significantly accelerated cellular aging. “We were surprised to find such a striking result,” epidemiologist Anna Pollack from George Mason University told New Scientist. “It is equivalent to around 11 years of accelerated cellular aging.”

The team found that once they’d adjusted for things like age, ethnicity and smoking status, women who had had at least one child had telomeres that were 4.2% shorter on average than childless women.

It’s even greater than previously observed results of research examining the association with smoking – a cost of 4.6 years of cellular aging – and obesity (8.8 years).

And the rate of aging seems to increase with the number of children.

“We found that women who had five or more children had even shorter telomeres compared to those who had none, and relatively shorter relative to those who had one, two, three or four, even,” Pollack told Newsweek.

But there are conflicting reports too, with a 2016 study of rural Kaqchikel Mayan communities in Guatemala finding that women in the community with more surviving children had longer telomeres, suggesting that having children could actually protect women from cellular aging.

As for what could be behind the telomere shortening seen in the US sample, the researchers speculate stress involved in looking after children could be involved, but given how little research has been conducted in this area, they advise their results should be treated with caution.

“We’re not saying ‘don’t have children’,” Pollack told New Scientist, and while scientists keep examining what’s really going on here, that’s very level-headed advice.

The findings are reported in Human Reproduction.


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