New research out of UC Irvine shows that children born to women who experience unusual levels of psychological or social stress during pregnancy are more likely to show signs of accelerated aging than other children.
The study's results are the first to reveal the long-term impact of prenatal stress on cellular aging in human offspring, and are reported this week in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Science.
So what's causing the rapid aging? It turns out that a fetus's exposure to maternal stress is a significant predictor of adult telomere length, with higher maternal stress correlating with shortened telomeres in children. Telomeres are the stretches of DNA that cap and protect the ends of your chromosomes. Every time your cells divide, your telomeres get incrementally shorter. The shorter your telomeres become, the faster your cells age.
Generally speaking, the longer your telomeres are the better. Shortened telomeres are associated with premature mortality and diseases commonly related to old age, including diabetes, dementia, cancer, and coronary heart disease.
When Dr. Sonja Entringer and her colleagues at UCI examined the DNA of otherwise healthy 25-year-old men and women born to mothers who had experienced unusual levels of stress during pregnancy, they found that their test subjects' cells looked...older than expected. The test subjects had, on average, telomeres typical of 28-year-olds born to mothers with less stressful pregnancies. In fact, the telomeres of the female test subjects more closely resembled those of a typical 30-year-old.
According to Pathik D. Wadhwa, the paper's lead author:
[This research] is the first to show the impact of prenatal stress on cell aging in humans, and it sheds light on an important biological pathway underlying the developmental origins of adult disease risk.
Read the full scientific article via PNAS