If raising your kids along with shouldering the responsibilities of everything else life throws at you is making you feel a decade older than your calendar age, you might be on to something.
A recent study out of George Mason University in Fairfax, Va., has found that mothers age faster on a cellular level versus childless women, and that their aging is more accelerated than that of smokers and people who are obese.
The study, which was published in the journal Human Reproduction, examined telomere length, the end caps on DNA chromosomes that protect them from deterioration — they’ve been likened to the caps on the tips of shoelaces that prevent them from fraying. In examining nearly 2,000 women between the ages of 20 and 44 through a cross-sectional analysis of data culled from the National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey, researchers found that women who had had children had telomeres 4.2 per cent shorter than those who hadn’t, putting them on par with childless women 11 years their senior.
“We know that telomere length ages you on a cellular level, but that doesn’t necessarily mean that you’ll look older,” Anna Pollack, lead author of the study and assistant professor in the department of Global and Community Health at George Mason University, tells Global News.
While Pollack doesn’t think these findings necessarily give cause to book an appointment with your cosmetic dermatologist, some studies suggest otherwise.
Definitive science may be out on how much telomere length can affect the appearance of skin, but some studies have shown that the telomerase enzyme complex, which maintains telomere length in cells, is also active in certain cells in the epidermis and may play a significant role in skin maintenance. So, if you’re a mom and your skin is starting to look a little worse for wear, it may not just be due to lack of sleep.
On a more concerning level, telomere length has also been associated with diseases like Type 2 diabetes, cardiovascular disease, atherosclerosis, cancer and mortality.
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“We don’t know if this is just an indicator, however,” Pollack says. “You see more grey hair in older people, but you wouldn’t say that having grey hair means they’re more likely to die. In the same way, we don’t know if telomere length means you’ll contract one of these diseases or you’ll die earlier.”
Actually, the latter scenario has been shown to be less likely in older moms (over the age of 30) who, studies have shown, have a longer lifespan.
What was perhaps most surprising, however, is that women who have had children age faster than smokers and women who are obese.
“Other studies have looked at the effects smoking and obesity have on telomere length and they were notable. They concluded that in these groups, there was a four-and-a-half- and eight-year increase in cellular aging, respectively,” Pollack says. “In our study, we found it’s even stronger for women who’ve had children.”
Unfortunately, it’s not entirely clear why that is. Because this was a cross-sectional analysis and the data set did not account for factors like stress, lack of sleep or social support, it’s impossible to draw direct correlations. In addition, Pollack points out, there’s no way of knowing when the mothers’ telomeres started to shorten. They may very well have been shorter before having kids.
“Moms who had kids have shorter telomeres compared to women who haven’t, but we don’t know when in their lifespan it happened. We don’t know if it’s the process of having kids that caused it,” she says. “We want to caution that this shouldn’t cause anyone to change their family planning practices.”