As if the pain of labor wasn’t enough, the journal Human Reproduction has published a new study that seems to suggest that women who have given birth age quicker than those without children, on a cellular level at least. According to the study, having a child adds the equivalent of 11 years extra aging to one particular measure of biological aging, and scientists are not really sure why.
The study is focused on telomeres, a compound structure that sits at the end of a chromosome, with the aim of protecting the DNA from degeneration, like a lid does on a pen. Each time a cell regenerates, its telomeres get shorter, and they become the cell’s aging clock. Short telomeres have been linked to various health conditions and physical aging signs like gray hair, as well as higher mortality.
In the study, researchers at George Mason University, Virginia, examined telomere length in blood samples from almost 2,000 American women ages 20 to 44, and they discovered something startling. The telomeres of women with children were an average 4.2% shorter than those that didn’t. Weight, age, and socioeconomic backgrounds were taken into account, yet this still held true.
“It is equivalent to around 11 years of accelerated cellular aging,” said Anna Pollack, lead author of the paper, when talking to New Scientist. She also added that this was a more substantial change than seen in smoking and obesity studies.
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There has been several similar studies suggesting that the complete opposite is true. A study on Mayan women in 2017 showed women with more children had, in fact, longer telomeres than women with fewer children.
Looking at this contradiction, Pollack speculated that the stress levels of having children may be more at work here than the physical process of giving birth. She particularly points out, in the USA, the lack of mandatory maternity, which can make raising a newborn even more stressful.