Most new mothers expect to lose sleep while caring for their newborns. But sadly, this can lead to premature aging. A new UCLA study reveals that lack of sleep during childbearing can actually cut a few years off your life.
The scientists studied 33 women between the ages of 23 and 45 during their pregnancies and their first year of motherhood. They analyzed the women’s DNA using blood samples to determine their “biological age.”
This number may differ from chronological age because it takes into account factors other than your date of birth. For example, genetics, lifestyle, diet, and disease all contribute to biological age.
After collecting this data, the scientists determined the biological age of the women one year after giving birth. Mothers who slept less than seven hours a night at six months showed signs of premature aging. They had a biological age of three to seven years older than those who slept seven or more hours a night. The results of the UCLA research were published this summer in the journal Sleep health.
Additionally, the researchers found that mothers who slept less than seven hours had shorter telomeres in their white blood cells. Telomeres are small pieces of DNA at the ends of chromosomes and resemble the plastic tips of shoelaces. They help protect DNA molecules, preventing the ends of chromosomes from fraying or sticking together. When telomeres shorten, they can increase the risk of cancer and cardiovascular disease along with earlier death.
“The first few months of postpartum sleep deprivation could have a lasting effect on physical health,” said study first author Judith Carroll, the George F. Solomon professor of psychobiology at UCLA. “We know from a large body of research that sleeping less than seven hours a night is detrimental to health and increases the risk of age-related diseases. “
Motherhood Linked to Premature Aging, New Study Finds
During the study period, the participants slept between five and nine hours per night. However, more than half of the women got less than seven hours at the six-month-one-year marker.
“We found that with each additional hour of sleep, the mother’s biological age was younger,” said Carroll, a fellow at UCLA’s Cousins Center for Psychoneuroimmunology at the Jane and Terry Semel Institute for Neuroscience and Human Behavior. “I, and many other sleep scientists, believe that sleep health is as vital to overall health as diet and exercise.”
How to decrease these impacts of premature aging:
Therefore, by trying to get a little more sleep each night, new mothers can delay premature aging. Carroll encouraged new mothers to take advantage of any opportunity to catch up on sleep, including:
- napping during the day while your baby sleeps
- contact friends and / or family for help
- asking your partner to help you with the baby at night or early in the morning
“Taking care of your sleep needs will help you and your baby in the long run,” she said.
Co-author Christine Dunkel Schetter, Distinguished Professor of Psychology and Psychiatry at UCLA, said this research “and other findings on postpartum maternal mental health provide a boost to better support mothers of young babies so they can get enough sleep, possibly through parental leave so that both parents can bear part of the burden of care and through programs for families and parents. “
However, she added that new mothers shouldn’t worry too much about premature aging from loss of sleep. Accelerated biological aging can present some health risks, but it doesn’t cause immediate harm to your bodies.
“We don’t want the message to be that mothers are permanently damaged by child care and loss of sleep,” he emphasized. “We don’t know if these effects are long-lasting.”
Premature aging is due to damage to codes in DNA
The study authors used the latest scientific methods to look at DNA alterations to determine biological age. Also known as epigenetic aging, this occurs when specific regions of the codes within DNA become inaccessible. DNA provides codes for making proteins, which carry out vital functions in the body.
“You can think of DNA as a grocery store,” Carroll said, “with many basic ingredients to prepare a meal. If there is a spill in an aisle, it may be closed and you won’t be able to get an item from that aisle, which could prevent you from preparing a recipe. When access to the DNA code is ‘closed’, the genes that code for specific proteins cannot be expressed and are therefore turned off. “
Since premature aging causes certain areas within DNA to “turn off,” Carroll says this process acts like a kind of clock. This helps scientists estimate the biological age of individuals; the older the epigenetic age, the greater their disease and risk of early mortality.
Since the study cohort included a small sample of women, the authors suggest additional studies to draw definitive conclusions. Future studies using a large representative sample may reveal more information about the long-term ramifications of sleep loss during childbearing. They can also assess other factors that contribute to sleep loss and whether premature aging the effects can be reversed.
In an earlier study, Carroll and Dunkel Schetter reported that a mother’s prenatal stress could accelerate the premature aging of her child. This constitutes a type of “intergenerational transfer of health risk,” said Dunkel Schetter.
Other ways to delay premature aging besides getting more sleep
- Participate in strength and endurance exercises at least a few times a week.
- Keep a healthy diet Including whole foods such as lean meats, dairy, nuts, grains, fruits, and vegetables.
- Keep your stress low by exercising and doing relaxation techniques like yoga or meditation.
Final thoughts on a study linking sleep loss during childbearing with premature aging
Most mothers can attest to the exhaustion that comes with raising a child. While having a baby also brings great joy, it requires immense sacrifice. Many new mothers lose hours of sleep each night caring for their child, accelerating premature aging. However, the UCLA study says that the long-term effects of poor sleep during childbearing have yet to be determined. By taking naps or asking for help with the baby, mothers can get more sleep, perhaps counteracting the negative effects of sleep deprivation at night.