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Pregnancy Speeds Up Aging, Yet Postpartum Offers Surprising Reversal

A pregnant person stands by a crib.
Credit: Ömürden Cengiz/ Unsplash
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New research from Yale School of Medicine published in Cell Metabolism suggests that pregnancy accelerates aging, but with an important caveat—there appears to be significant reversal of this effect in the postpartum period.

To make this discovery, Yale Child Study Center Assistant Professor Kieran O’Donnell, PhD, and his team made use of a unique pregnancy cohort that provided epigenetic data across pregnancy, allowing them to calculate measures of biological aging using ‘epigenetic clocks.’

From early to late pregnancy, a period of approximately 20 weeks, biological — or epigenetic — age increased by approximately two years, suggesting that pregnancy does indeed accelerate aging. However, when O’Donnell and his team examined biological age in the same women three months later, what they saw came as surprise.

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“At three months postpartum, we saw a remarkably large decrease in biological age, by as much as eight years for some individuals, so while pregnancy increases biological age there is a clear (and pronounced) recovery in the postpartum,” O’Donnell commented. These new findings replicate those in an earlier study, also published in Cell Metabolism, suggesting different sources of stress may increase biological age in a transient manner.

In the new study, for which the group's biostatistician, Hung Pham, was first author, the team also found that maternal pre-pregnancy body mass index negatively impacted this recovery effect, resulting in higher biological age estimates in the postpartum. In contrast, breastfeeding resulted in a steeper decline in maternal biological age from pregnancy to three months postpartum. O’Donnell says these findings provide an interesting new direction for aging research.

“Lots to follow up on here,” O’Donnell said. “First, we don’t know if the postpartum recovery effect is relevant for short- or long-term maternal health outcomes and if these effects accumulate over successive pregnancies. Likewise, we don’t know if the postpartum decrease in biological age is simply the system recovering to pre-pregnancy biological age or, more provocatively, if pregnancy may have a rejuvenating effect.”

Reference: Pham H, Thompson-Felix T, Czamara D, et al. The effects of pregnancy, its progression, and its cessation on human (maternal) biological aging. Cell Metabol. 2024. doi: 10.1016/j.cmet.2024.02.016

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