If you’ve ever secretly blamed your kids for giving you gray hairs, there’s now science to back that up. A new study finds that women who have children age 11 years faster than women who don’t have kids – at least on a cellular level. Specifically, moms’ telomeres, biological markers associated with longevity, were significantly shorter compared to women without kids. Telomeres are linked to everything from lifespan to health conditions to yep, even gray hair. Luckily, there may be a silver lining. Read on to find out how to spare yourself the extra wrinkles.
Aging is linked to telomere length
Researchers from George Mason University analyzed the length of telomeres in the blood samples of nearly 2,000 American women between the ages of 20 and 44, looking for signs of aging. Evidence of aging appears most measurably in telomeres, structures at the end of chromosomes that keep DNA from deteriorating (much like the plastic coating on the end of shoelaces). Each time cells replicate and divide, the telomeres shorten – literal evidence of aging. Over time, these protective caps wear down. Without telomeres, DNA strands become damaged and cells can’t do their job. This triggers the cells to die in a process called apoptosis, aka programmed cell death.
Women with kids had shorter telomeres than non-moms — a sign of aging
After adjusting for factors like the women’s age, weight, and socioeconomic background, the researchers found that women with kids had telomeres 4.2 percent shorter than their child-free peers, or “11 years of accelerated cellular aging,” says Anna Pollack, lead author of the paper.
Another study found the exact opposite
If all these findings sound depressing, moms and moms to be should take them with a grain of salt. Another study on Mayan women, from 2017, revealed precisely the opposite: the greater the number of children, the longer their telomeres.
What actually causes aging in moms?
The discrepancies in findings led Pollack to presume that it’s actually the stress levels that accompany child-rearing — not the biological act of having kids — that may be the culprit. Specifically, Pollack highlighted the lack of mandatory maternity leave in the U.S. Additionally, Western cultures don’t have the support of live-in extended family members that exist in Mayan cultures. Plus, many moms in the U.S. juggle office jobs with family care. So while U.S. moms may be aging faster than women without kids, there are steps you can take to lower your stress levels and slow down the aging process.
Here’s how to combat physical, mental, and emotional stress
Foremost, it’s important to understand that oxidative stress — influenced by emotional stress, diet, and other lifestyle factors — causes telomeres to unravel. Armed with that knowledge, you want to focus on lifestyle strategies to lower your stress – physically, mentally, and emotionally.
Nourish your body with nutrients: Replenish your vitamin and mineral levels post-pregnancy. It takes anywhere from six months to two years to replenish the vital nutrients you utilized when pregnant – omega-3s, iron, folic acid, calcium, and zinc in particular — so work with your doc to get your nutrient levels back on track through diet and supplementation.
Prioritize sleep: Sleep and stress interact bidirectionally, which means that stress can cause sleep disturbance; likewise, insufficient sleep can stress your entire system. To protect your precious hours of zzz’s, put your phone on airplane mode (and don’t check it) during the night. Make your next day’s to-do list before bed; research shows it can keep you from worrying in the middle of the night. And, of course, curb coffee consumption after 2PM. Read here for more proven sleep hacks.
Seek out your own tribe: Remember what the Mayan study indicates – a cooperative breeding strategy offers social support, which alleviates stress. Good neighbors, a stable babysitter or other child-care, mom’s groups, or your own friends can create a helpful sense of community, so you don’t feel you’re bearing the brunt of everything alone. Be proactive about exchanging numbers at the playground, and offer to watch your neighbors’ kids. They’ll be more likely to return the favor.
Downgrade mental stress: This can be a challenging one, particularly if you have a taxing job and are trying to balance that with raising kids. Put self-care time on the family calendar and treat it like any other appointment. Schedule personal reading or journaling time, book a massage, or take a walk.
Get active and social: Use scheduled me time for meditation, yoga, high-intensity exercise, or even dates with friends. There’s nothing better than a laugh with a good friend when you’re feeling overwhelmed — and social support goes a long way towards reducing stress. If you feel guilty about the indulgence, remember how much better a mom you are when you feel happy and supported.