Cellular ageing could increase risks for mom and baby, a new study suggested.
A finding revealed that pregnant women, who had low socioeconomic status during childhood and who have poor family social support, appear to prematurely age on a cellular level, potentially raising the risk for complications.
Researchers examined blood from pregnant women to evaluate the length of telomeres -- structures at the end of chromosomes that are used by scientists as a measure of biological (as opposed to chronological) age. Shorter telomeres mean an older cellular age.
The moms-to-be were also asked about stressors, including low socioeconomic status and trauma during their childhood and current social support for the research, which was conducted at The Ohio State University.
The study found that women who reported low socioeconomic status as kids and struggled with family support as adults were biologically older, as indicated by shorter telomeres.
However, this study didn't examine birth outcomes, but prompted the researchers to wonder if this rapid biological ageing could put a woman at greater risk of premature delivery, gestational hypertension, preeclampsia and other problems.
Previous research already has established worse birth outcomes in women with psychosocial risk factors, including low socioeconomic status.
The study's senior author, Lisa Christian said that the cellular aging found in this study is one possible explanation
"Access to support, care and resources is so important to expectant moms," she said.
The study was conducted on a racially diverse group of 81 pregnant women who were 25 years old on average. They were evaluated during each trimester of pregnancy and again about two months after delivery.
The women also filled out questionnaires where they were asked about measures of trauma and low socioeconomic status during childhood, along with the measure of current social support.
Family social support -- but not support from partners or friends -- emerged as a strong predictor of telomere length, as did low socioeconomic status during childhood.
Advanced maternal age is defined by doctors as 35 or older. It is well-understood that older mothers are at higher risk of having babies with medical and developmental challenges, and it is possible that this applies to moms with advanced cellular age as well.
"What we are wondering is, how does biological age factor in? We know that there are younger mothers who have poor birth outcomes, and that chronological age is not a perfect predictor of outcomes," said Amanda Mitchell, study's lead author.
Telomeres are caps on the ends of chromosomes that shorten as cells replicate -- part of the natural aging process. She compared them to the plastic covering on the end of a shoelace.
"With age -- or stress -- those plastic coverings wear away and the ends of the lace unravel," Mitchell added.
However the good news was telomeres can also lengthen, lowering biological age and as for now, it is strictly used for research purposes and not something that would translate into clinical practice, Christian cited.
But it's possible that the knowledge gained by research into cellular aging could prompt useful interventions in obstetrics practices -- including greater focus on moms' psychological well-being and support systems, said Christian.
The research appeared in the journal Psychoneuroendocrinology.