Do You Live Less if Your Mom Was Stressed?
Not long ago, a handful of scientists at the University of California at Irvine were curious about why some people live longer than others — even within groups that have similar ethnic and educational backgrounds, demographic and disease risk profiles, and are exposed to similar stressors in life. At heart, they know the question is impossible to answer. People are complex. The effects of life events on our genes—what we eat, what we breathe, who we love and how well we’re loved, and so on —are impossible to isolate.
But the scientists had a hunch that some of us had a bad start —beginning in the womb — because our mothers were highly stressed during pregnancy. There’s an avalanche of evidence that women who are under extreme duress in pregnancy have kids who have shorter attention spans, lower IQ, memory deficiencies, and health problems.
Could prenatal stress also set a baby’s life expectancy clock to tick faster?
One way to find out is to look at the genes of people whose mothers were extremely stressed during pregnancy. In each of our cells are DNA-protein complexes called telomeres, which cap the end of chromosomes. Telomeres are like the plastic bit at the end of a shoelace to keep it from unraveling. Each time a cell divides, they become a little shorter. This makes telomeres something of a longevity marker. People with long tips at the end of their DNA strands tend to live longer than people who have short tips. It doesn’t matter how long your shoelace is; what counts is the integrity of the cap.
In the UCI study, researchers recruited volunteers in their twenties. Some were selected because their mothers experienced a horrid event during pregnancy. The scientists weren’t looking for the normal pregnancy stressors — work-life balance, weight gain, fretting about the baby’s health, and so on. They meant extreme stressors: a sudden divorce, a death in the family, a natural disaster, and physical or emotional abuse.
What they found is disturbing.
Compared to the control group (whose moms had a relatively stress-free pregnancy), people exposed to their moms’ extreme prenatal stress had significantly shorter telomeres. By our mid-twenties, most of us lose about 60 base pairs of telomere length annually. Not so of people who were exposed to extreme prenatal stress — they lose drastically more telomere length each year. The men had 178 fewer base pairs on average (equivalent to 3.5 additional years of aging). Women had a shocking 295 base-pair deficit (5 years of accelerated aging). It seems that a mother’s prenatal stress hits her daughter harder than her son.
How does this happen? During pregnancy, stress may alter blood flow, oxygen, and glucose metabolism between mother and baby. High levels of the stress hormone cortisol from the mother flood the placental barrier. Excess cortisol may also slow down in the production of telomerase, an enzyme that acts as a repair kit for telomeres. Telomerase adds telomeric DNA to shortened telomeres. It regenerates our cells and tissues. Like a fountain of youth, telomerase gives back what time takes away.
So what if you’re on a telomerase-less trajectory?
Here’s the big relief: Your clock doesn’t have to keep ticking so quickly, even if it has been set that way before birth. There’s strong evidence that lifestyle changes can amp up telomerase production. One study found that stress management, counseling, and a healthy diet are associated with higher telomerase activity. Another found that meditation turns up the telomerase dial.
In the research community there’s much interest in the idea that, by maintaining our telomeres, gene therapy might someday reverse or prevent aging if started early enough. Is it possible? As a measure to conceal the abuses of youth, teens could freebase on telomerase.
Oh, the ways to stress out Mom.
*If you like this blog, click here for previous posts and here to read a description of my most recent book, Do Gentlemen Really Prefer Blondes?, on the science behind love, sex, and attraction. If you wish, check out my forthcoming book, Do Chocolate Lovers Have Sweeter Babies?: The Surprising Science of Pregnancy.