Children born to mothers who are stressed during pregnancy may become adults with prematurely aged cells.
A comparison of 94 young adults found those subjected to prenatal stress tended to have white blood cells with shorter telomeres, the protein caps that prevent chromosome tips from fraying when cells divide.
Whether telomere shortening is a cause of aging’s ravages, or if age-related deterioration causes telomeres to shorten, isn’t known. Either way, shortening is linked to chronic disease risk and diminished longevity.
White blood cells of prenatally stressed adults “had aged the equivalent of approximately 3.5 additional years,” wrote researchers led by University of California, Irvine fetal development specialists Pathik Wadhwa and Sonja Entringer in an August 2 Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences study.
Many studies have linked health problems to physical and psychological stresses, response to which wears down our body’s immune and metabolic systems. Studies have also linked adult health to maternal stress: A mother’s stress responses are passed on to her infants, making them more vulnerable to chronic diseases.
Connecting mother, fetus, and ultimately baby in stress are a variety of mutually inexclusive, as-yet-partially understood factors: stress hormones, oxidation pathways and metabolic pathways. Epigenetic programming — the heritable, on-the-fly form of gene regulation that allows for rapid adaptation to circumstance — is also important.
The latest findings reinforce the researchers’ suspicion that telomere biology plays a role, too. In earlier studies of the same group, telomere length tracked with immune system problems and metabolic dysregulation.
The 94 people in this group are all young adults, carefully selected for demographic comparability. When their telomeres were read for this latest study, they were 25 years old. The extra 3.5 years of white blood cell aging in prenatally stressed people hides a gender difference: In women, prenatally stressed telomeres were shorter by the equivalent of about 5 years’ wear and tear.
Whether short telomeres cause the problems or just reflect them remains to be determined, but a basic pattern is clear: Stress in the womb can set up “a long-term trajectory at birth,” write the researchers.
Note: Several of the paper’s authors are co-founders of Telome Health, a company that offers health-related telomere testing (though not longevity-related testing).
By Brandon Keim
Top image: Menno Hordijk/Flickr.
Newborns whose moms took DHA supplements got sick less often, better quicker
Women who take fish oil supplements during pregnancy may boost their babies’ immune systems and help protect against colds during the first months of life, a new study shows.
Infants whose mothers were given DHA, or docosahexaenoic acid, an omega-3 fatty acid found in fish oil, got sick less often and for shorter periods of time than babies whose mothers got none.
The difference wasn’t huge between the momswho took the supplements starting in the second trimester and those who didn’t, but it was significant. For instance, 1-month-old infants who did catch colds spent a full day less coughing, being congested and sniffling if their moms had taken DHA.
The study’s lead author, Usha Ramakrishnan, a researcher in the Rollins School of Public Health at Emory University, is quick to note that DHA is no cure for the common cold. Still, she added, popping the supplements might pay off.
“Our findings are suggestive of a possible benefit,” said Ramakrishnan, an associate professor in the Atlanta school’s Department of Global Health whose study was published in the latest issue of the journal Pediatrics.
Ramakrishnan and her colleagues followed 851 Mexican women from the second trimester of pregnancy, through the babies’ births, and until the infants were six months old. About half of the women were given 400 milligrams of DHA each day starting in the second trimester. The rest of the women were given placebos.
The new moms were interviewed at one month, three months and six months after the babies were born. Each time, the women were asked whether the babies had experienced various respiratory symptoms, such as cough, phlegm, nasal congestion and wheezing in the previous 15 days. They were also asked if whether their infants had caught a cold during that time.
At one month, babies whose mothers took DHA experienced shorter periods of respiratory symptoms when they got sick.
As for the immune-boosting effect, Ramakrishnan points to earlier research showing that the function of a host of different kinds of cells can be improved by omega-3 fatty acids.
Time will tell how well the results will hold up. Earlier research suggested that DHA supplements might boost cognitive development in babies, but a large study published last year in the Journal of the American Medical Association found no such impact.
Dr. Samuel Parry, chief of the division of Maternal-Fetal Medicine at the University of Pennsylvania Health System, is waiting for more research before he starts recommending the supplement to his patients.
“We don’t think DHA causes harm in pregnancy,” he said. “But we’re skeptical that it really helps prevent colds in babies.”
Parry, a member of the Center for Research on Reproduction and Women’s Health, also urged pregnant women to be careful when choosing any nutritional supplements, because many are not regulated by the federal Food and Drug Administration.