It's no secret that children age us; both in experience and in stress. After all, the lack of sleep and the constant bickering with little versions of ourselves is certainly not making us any younger. What we're coming to learn, however, is that that acceleration on age may occur before we even meet them. New research suggests that pregnancy and childbirth may be playing a crucial part in the aging process as well.
The Washington Post explains that new studies are being conducted involving what are called telomeres. Telomeres, to put it simply, are pieces of chromosomes that seemingly get shorter as we get older. Telomeres, in addition to epigenetics and microchimerism, are helping researchers not only understand the aging process but are helping to understand the effect motherhood plays on the process as well.
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Although some studies contradict, some suggest that pregnancy and childbirth are hitting fast-forward on the shortening of a mother's telomeres. Dan Eisenberg, a biological anthropologist at the University of Washington, conducted a study which showed that after every pregnancy, a woman's telomeres are shortened by an additional four months to four years, in terms of overall expected life span, compared to women with no children.
As telomeres shorten, cells are more at risk of ceasing replication (dying) or being susceptible to complications. Bad habits, including smoking, having an elevated BMI, not getting enough sleep, and being subjected to stress may shorten telomeres as well.
During pregnancy, when a woman's body changes substantially to grow and support new life, significant stress is placed upon her system. Eisenberg's study showed that by looking at the DNA extracted from white blood cells, women who had children also had an older 'epigenetic age'.
What the researchers didn't understand is that if a woman was pregnant at the time they collected the sample, she actually looked epigenetically younger than mothers who weren't pregnant. It was only after pregnancy that the epigenetic changes seemed to take effect.
Calen Ryan, a biological anthropologist at Northwestern University questions, "Why would a woman look epigenetically younger during a pregnancy and epigenetically older after multiple pregnancies? Could it be that mom's blood is getting contaminated with baby's blood, or cells of baby's blood, and if so is this an artifact of that?" This is when microchimerism came into question- "a phenomenon where cells from mom and baby go back and forth across the placenta during pregnancy," explains The Washington Post.
Anna Pollack, an epidemiologist at George Mason University, also conducted a study and found similar results: women who gave birth had telomeres that were roughly 4.2% shorter than the telomeres of women who had never given birth. Pollack explains that this is about 11 years worth of cellular aging and is actually higher than the shortening related to smoking or a high BMI.
What still needs to be definitively concluded is when this shortening occurs. Researchers in the field continue to try and determine if it's the hormonal and physiological changes of pregnancy and birth that cause so much cellular damage or if it's the overall aspects of parenting.