Pregnancy speeds up aging process for young women, study finds

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The list of sacrifices women make for their children just got longer, as a new study reveals that pregnancy can accelerate aging in young mothers.

Research from the Columbia University Mailman School of Public Health found that women who had been pregnant in the past looked “biologically older” than those who had never carried a child.

The effect was compounded in women who had more pregnancies compared to those who had fewer pregnancies, according to a press release from the university.

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Data was gathered for 1,735 young people (ages 20 to 22) in the Philippines. 

The findings were published in the medical journey Proceedings of National Academy of Sciences.

Pregnant longevity

A new study has shown that pregnancy can accelerate aging in young mothers. (iStock)

The researchers used new DNA tools — called “epigenetic clocks” — to analyze cellular information related to health, aging and mortality risk, the release stated.

The same effect on biological aging was not reported among fathers, which suggests that the effect is associated with pregnancy or breastfeeding.

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“We found that the number of pregnancies reported by young women was associated with faster biological aging using multiple measures that predict health and mortality later in life,” Calen Ryan, PhD, associate research scientist in the Columbia Aging Center and lead author of the study, told Fox News Digital.

“These effects persisted even when accounting for a range of social and environmental factors, but were not present for same-aged men from the same cohort.”

Pregnant woman

The effect was compounded in women who had more pregnancies compared to those who had fewer pregnancies. (iStock)

The effects were seen the most in “young, high-fertility women,” said Ryan.

“Our results are also the first to follow the same women through time, linking changes in each woman’s pregnancy number to changes in her biological age.”

“We’ve been so focused on outcomes for infants that we often forget to take care of the moms.”

The fact that the number of pregnancies is linked to changes at the molecular level — long before any health changes can be detected — is a “remarkable finding,” Ryan said.

“It highlights how we have been overlooking pregnancy and other key aspects of women’s health when we study the aging process.”

Pregnant woman

The researchers used new DNA tools — called “epigenetic clocks” — to analyze cellular information related to health, aging and mortality risk. (iStock)

Dr. Marc Siegel, clinical professor of medicine at NYU Langone Medical Center and a Fox News medical contributor, was not involved in the study but reviewed the findings.

“The effects aren’t that pronounced, but they are in keeping with what we know about pregnancy — a period of inflammation, decreased overall immune function, rapid cell turnover, and increased stress and metabolic function,” he told Fox News Digital.

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“All of this contributes to cellular aging, where metabolic functions begin to decline.”

Longer-term studies would need to be done to determine whether the effects are reversible over time, Siegel noted.

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Study limitations

The study did have some limitations, according to Ryan.

The individuals in Columbia’s study were “quite young,” he said, and came from a different sociocultural context than where the measures were developed. 

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“We need to continue to study the extent to which these measures of biological aging translate to health outcomes as women age in the context of the Philippines, where this study was carried out,” Ryan told Fox News Digital.

“We still have a lot to learn about the role of pregnancy and other aspects of reproduction in the aging process.”

Pregnant woman with husband

The same effect on biological aging was not reported among fathers, which suggests that the effect is associated with pregnancy or breastfeeding. (iStock)

The overall effects were small, Ryan said, and they could be linked, potentially, to high fertility and unreliable access to health care and adequate nutrition.

It’s not yet clear how the accelerated aging will impact women’s health or mortality as they grow older.

“Strong medical, social and nutritional support for new moms is always the best policy over the long run.”

“The message here is not all doom and gloom — but it does highlight the fact that we’ve been so focused on outcomes for infants that we often forget to take care of the moms,” he said. 

Rather than relying on anecdotal stories, Ryan said he hopes studies like this one promote a better understanding of how, when and to what extent women’s biology is changed by pregnancy — and perhaps point toward ways to mitigate those effects.

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Ryan added, “Strong medical, social and nutritional support for new moms is always the best policy over the long run.”

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