Motherhood is often a rewarding albeit stressful experience, but few with children might expect to see slower aging as a result. After all, the stereotypical image of high-stress days and sleepless nights seems more likely to make people turn gray earlier, not later.
Animal studies on the subject have also shown that reproduction is associated with faster aging. Yet, almost counterintuitively, researchers have found results saying that, at least for humans, the truth might be the opposite.
The findings, which were published in PLOS One, all have to do with telomeres. Telomeres are basically “caps” at the end of each DNA strand and serve to protect chromosomes—the parts that have all the important information. Every time a cell replicates itself, the telomeres shrink slightly. Over the years of countless replications, telomeres eventually get so short that they can’t protect your chromosomes anymore. This leads to vulnerability, which leads to damage, which leads to cells aging and losing functionality.
This comparative, 13 year study looked at 75 women from two neighboring communities in Guatemala. Telomere length was measured at the start and end of the study, and the number of children each woman had was tracked. The more children each woman had, the longer their telomeres were at the end of the study.
The current theory is that the increased estrogen production that occurs during pregnancy may be involved, since estrogen is known to help protect against telomere shortening. It’s also possible that social or other environmental factors were at play, since the women with more children also had more social support.
Interestingly, among the women who had more surviving children (as opposed to stillbirth or miscarriage), the protective effect seemed to be more pronounced. The observed difference between these women and those who simply had more children was minor, however, and requires more research to say whether it amounts to anything.
Although the study was small, it’s also one of the first—if not the first—to examine direct associations between number of children and telomere length. It’s a fascinating first step that may end up overturning prior understanding of biological aging.
Sources for Today’s Article:
Whiteman, H., “Having more children could slow aging,” Medical News Today web site, January 8, 2016; http://www.medicalnewstoday.com/articles/304866.php?sr, last accessed June 29, 2016.
Barha, C., et. al., “Number of Children and Telomere Length in Women: A Prospective, Longitudinal Evaluation,” PLOS One, 2016; doi.org/10.1371/journal.pone.0146424