Pregnancy Can Speed up Biological Aging in Women, According to a New Study

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While there are a lot of life changes that come with having a child, aging faster usually isn’t on any expecting mom’s bingo card, but according to research, it can happen. A new study, published April 8 in The Proceedings of National Academy of Sciences found that pregnancy can accelerate aging in young women. Researchers from the Columbia University Mailman School of Public Health followed 1,735 people in the Philippines from 1983 to 2014 to study fertility and its impact on longevity and health. Researchers honed in on the study’s female participants and found that those who had never been pregnant showed less signs of aging than women who had been pregnant. For every additional pregnancy, aging accelerated almost 3 months faster than researchers would expect, the study found. Calen Ryan PhD, lead author of the study and associate research scientist at the Columbia Aging Center said in a release to Science Daily that his team’s research is the first to “follow the same women through time, linking changes in each woman’s pregnancy to changes in her biological age.”

Ryan tells ELLE.com that this work builds upon previous research examining pregnancy’s impact on the body and life span. “A lot of changes happen during pregnancy, including changes to the immune system, metabolism, blood volume and blood pressure, and bone. We still don’t fully understand how persistent these changes are and how they relate to long-term health,” he says.

To compare aging rates between women, the research team at Columbia used “epigenetic clocks” to track changes to the participants’ DNA over time. Epigenetic clocks help researchers identify markers of aging by measuring changes in physiological regulation, which Ryan says includes all body processes that involve the regulation of multiple organs and feedback loops, like metabolism and body temperature. He adds that epigenetic clocks are “revolutionary” because they help scientists capture signs of aging on a molecular level. For the most part, the body does bounce back and undergo a recovery process after birth. Still, in some instances, the recovery might not be complete, “leading to residual biological aging with each additional pregnancy,” says Ryan.

gynecologist with digital tablet comforting pregnant patient

Jose Luis Pelaez Inc//Getty Images

“It isn’t clear what leads to incomplete recovery of biological aging, but at this point following your doctor’s orders is likely to lead to the best outcomes for both mom and baby,” Ryan tells ELLE.com.

At a time when women’s reproductive rights are under siege, and maternal morbidity rates in the U.S. continue to outpace what it should be for a developed, high-income country, it’s important for both women and lawmakers to consider aging as a part of the overall impact pregnancy can have on health and livelihood.

“We suspect that the costs are highest when healthcare is poor, or when nutritional resources—macro or micronutrients—are scarce. We also think young pregnancies, which are competing with the mother’s own growth, might be particularly costly,” Ryan tells ELLE.com. While more research is needed to determine the long-term impact pregnancy can have on aging, according to Ryan, these findings can help women who are trying or expecting children to anticipate possible future biological changes and put medical plans in place to support evolving health needs.

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