Pregnancy May Accelerate Biological Aging

A new study suggests pregnancy may be a driver of biological aging, underscoring the toll childbearing has on women’s health.

The study, which appeared in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, examined the relationship between reproductive history and biological aging in 1,735 men and women aged 20 to 22.

Biological age refers to the rate at which a person is aging physically and can differ from chronological age, which is the number of years a person has been alive.

The study participants were interviewed about pregnancies they had or fathered. All past pregnancies reported by participants were counted regardless of outcome, including miscarriages, stillbirths, and live births.

Researchers also collected participant’s blood samples for DNA methylation, a novel tool used to study different facets of cellular aging, health, and mortality risk.

Women who reported having been pregnant looked biologically older than women who had never been pregnant. Moreover, women who reported a higher number of pregnancies often looked biologically older than those who have had fewer pregnancies.

The number of pregnancies fathered was not associated with aging men.

The relationship between pregnancy history and biological age persisted even after taking into account other factors linked to biological aging, such as socioeconomic status, smoking, and genetic variation.

“Our findings suggest that pregnancy speeds up biological aging, and that these effects are apparent in young, high-fertility women,” said Calen Ryan, Ph.D., lead author of the study and associate research scientist in the Columbia Aging Center.

Researchers note that many pregnancies reported in the study occurred during late adolescence, when women are still growing, posing additional challenges for a mother.

We also do not know the extent to which accelerated epigenetic aging in these particular individuals will manifest as poor health or mortality decades later in life


Decline may be temporary

A study published in March in the journal Cell Metabolism found that from early to late pregnancy, a period of approximately 20 weeks, biological age increased by about two years.

However, at three months postpartum, women saw a large decrease in biological age, suggesting a clear recovery after giving birth.

Women who had a higher body mass index before pregnancy had higher biological age in the postpartum, while breastfeeding resulted in a steeper decline in biological age from pregnancy to three months postpartum.

While more research is needed to understand what impact pregnancy has on biological age, other long-lasting effects of childbearing on women’s health are well established.

For instance, common postnatal conditions that may persist years after giving birth include pain during sexual intercourse, low back back, anal and urinary incontinence, anxiety, and depression.

Postpartum hemorrhage, severe vaginal bleeding after childbirth, affects up to five in 100 women and is the leading cause of maternal deaths globally.

Moreover, pregnancy complications such as gestational diabetes and pregnancy-induced hypertension can increase the risk for type 2 diabetes and cardiovascular disease, respectively, later in life.

A better understanding of how pregnancy affects women’s biological age could help to provide better care for new parents.

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