Although it may feel like having more children ages you, new research suggests that having a big brood may actually slow the aging process.
Researchers at Simon Fraser University in Canada studied indigenous women in Guatemala who have high fertility rates in general and found that those with more children had longer telomeres, which are a sign of slower cellular aging, compared with those who had fewer offspring. “Telomeres are little pieces of DNA at the end of chromosomes that protect the rest of the chromosome,” Pablo A. Nepomnaschy, PhD, one of the study’s authors and an associate professor at Simon Fraser University, tells Yahoo Parenting. “The older the cell gets, the shorter the telomere.” On the flip side, long telomeres are associated with longevity.
For the study, the researchers swabbed the inside of the women’s cheeks for cell samples, but Nepomnaschy notes that previous research has shown that telomere length in different cells of the body tends to be similar. “If it’s shorter or longer in one cell, it’s probably shorter or longer in others,” he says. After analyzing the cell samples, “we found a positive association between the number of children and longer telomeres,” he says. The more children the women had, the longer the telomere.
Although more research is needed to understand why, Nepomnaschy and his colleagues hypothesize that estrogen plays a role. The hormone, which is high during pregnancy, is a known protective factor against oxidative stress, which ages cells, according to Nepomnaschy. “Perhaps the more times you go through pregnancy, the more time you — and your cells — spend protected,” he says.
Social support during pregnancy and after having children may also be a factor. “In this population of Guatemalan women where high fertility is highly valued, it’s possible that those who have more kids are receiving a lot more support from their families and peers,” explains Nepomnaschy. “They live in extended family groups, and everybody helps each other. If that’s the case, the women will have more energy to invest in maintaining themselves.”
That said, having lots of babies doesn’t automatically mean you’ll age well or live longer. “There are so many other factors that go into [longevity] and how cells age, including exposure to oxidative stress and toxins,” notes Nepomnaschy.
He also points out that pregnancy itself carries health risks. “The more times you get pregnant, you’re buying a ticket to have a problem,” says Nepomnaschy. “Your cells may be aging more slowly, but you still may die because of difficulties in childbirth. It’s a complicated issue.”
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