Pregnant women who have experienced childhood poverty and have poor family social support age prematurely on a cellular level, potentially raising the risk for complications, a study has warned.
Researchers at The Ohio State University in the US 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 age. Shorter telomeres mean an older cellular age.
The researchers also asked the mothers-to-be about stressors, including low socioeconomic status and trauma during their childhood and current social support.
They found that women who reported low socioeconomic status as kids and who struggled with family support as adults were biologically older, as indicated by shorter telomeres.
Although the study did not examine birth outcomes, researchers suggest that this rapid biological ageing could put women 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 cellular ageing found is one possible explanation, said Lisa Christian, a researcher at Ohio State Wexner Medical Center's Institute for Behavioral Medicine Research.
"Access to support, care and resources is so important to expectant moms," said Christian, senior author of the study published in the journal Psychoneuroendocrinology.
The study included 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.
Measures of trauma and low socioeconomic status during childhood, along with the measure of current social support, came from questionnaires the women filled out.
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, said Amanda Mitchell, a faculty member at the University of Louisville.
"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 Mitchell, who was on the research team at Ohio State.