Study Led by UCLA Faculty Finds Prenatal Stress of Mothers May Negatively Impact a Child’s Aging Process

New research led by scholars at the University of California, Los Angeles finds that a mother’s stress prior to giving birth may accelerate her child’s biological aging. The researchers found 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, like the plastic tips on shoelaces. Shortened telomeres have been linked to a higher risk of cancers, cardiovascular and other diseases, and earlier death.

The study followed mothers and their children from preconception into early childhood. Between the ages of 3 and 5, the children provided cell samples from inside their cheeks, from which the researchers extracted DNA, including telomeres. The team was then able to compare childhood telomere length with the stress measurements they had taken while the children were in utero.

“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 the study’s lead author, 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.”

Dr. Carroll joined the faculty at UCLA in 2013. She holds a bachelor’s degree in psychology and a master’s degree in biopsychology from Sonoma State University in Rohnert Park, California. She earned a Ph.D. in biological and health psychology from the University of Pittsburgh.

The full study, “Prenatal Maternal Stress Prospectively Relates to Shorter Child Buccal Cell Telomere Length,” was published in the journal Psychoneuroendocrinology. It may be accessed here.


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