Think Being a Mom Ages You? Scientifically, You May Be Right

by Risa Kerslake

Photograph by Twenty20

Motherhood is the most amazing thing and yet it drains us of so much extra energy. Somehow, it can feel as if we're years older—mentally and maybe physically—than we are. Turns out, our bodies might actually have aged a surprising amount at the cellular level.

Anna Pollack, an epidemiologist from George Mason University, and her team of researchers analyzed data from the National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey and found that women who have given birth show evidence of DNA changes—more specifically, their cells have actually aged significantly.

To understand this, we need to go back to science class in high school. On each one of our chromosomes, we have a clump of DNA on each end, sort of like the plastic ends on shoelaces, and these little end caps are genetic markers called telomeres. They protect the chromosome as it’s replicating within our bodies.

The length of a telomere, essentially, shows how old we are. A 10-year-old generally has longer telomeres than an 80-year-old. But the things we do to our bodies that harm us also harm our cells and shorter ones can be a sign of diseases such as cancer and heart disease. There is also evidence that smoking, stress and being overweight (among other things) can hasten the process of this shortening.

But Pollack and her team found another factor that is involved in telomeres shortening prematurely: those darling little children you love so much. Sorry to break it to you, but they may have aged your body down at the cellular level by as much as 11 years.

From what previous research has shown us, this is more aging done by smoking (about four years) and obesity (about nine years).

This aging process also depends on how many children you’ve given birth to. The researchers found that telomere shortening was less in women who have delivered between one and four babies; women who have had five or more children have shorter ones than women who have never given birth.

The researchers speculated that this shortening of our DNA markers could be related to the simple stress of actually raising kids. However, it’s important to realize that this is just speculation.

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Before you start thinking you’re doomed to be prematurely aged from your kids, there are, of course, caveats to all this: One being that this is merely a correlation, not a sure cause. In fact, one study from two years ago found evidence that having children may increase telomere length. The researchers there thought that it was possible that the more children a woman had, the more support she had from her community. Therefore her cells were under less stress, so to speak, and could maintain themselves better. This finding could show that our kids may really be protecting us from cellular aging—or that we need a village once we have them.

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