If your mother was pregnant during the Great Depression, years might have been taken off your life by the economy, study says


Can economic stress that mothers experience while pregnant affect how quickly their children age—and perhaps how early they die?

Quite possibly, a new study out of the University of Wisconsin-Madison and American University in Washington, D.C., released Tuesday, suggests.

People who experienced poor economic conditions while they were in utero aged faster later in life, as demonstrated by their biological age, the authors found. Independent of chronological age, one’s biological age reflects environmental exposures and disease risk, and is ideally lower than one’s chronological age. Adverse events while one is in utero may affect one’s epigenome, a set of chemical compounds that tell the genome what to do and regulates aging.

The study bolsters the case that “disparities in individuals begin to develop before we’re even born, before we can choose what to eat, before we can choose to exercise,” said Lauren Schmitz, an assistant professor in the La Follette School of Public Affairs at the University of Wisconsin-Madison who is trained in both economics and genetics, and who was one of the study’s co-authors.

“They died faster, aged faster—and this was among people who actually survived to be age 75.”

The researchers examined data from 832 participants in the U.S. Health and Retirement Study, all of whom were born in the 1930s during the Great Depression—the worst economic downturn in the nation’s history—and were still alive in 2016. The participants provided a blood sample that was used for epigenomic profiling

Additionally, researchers looked at economic data on wages and unemployment from the state that each participant’s mother lived in during her pregnancy, in addition to that participant’s health data. They compared each individual whose mother experienced relatively worse economic conditions during her pregnancy with another person born around the same time, in the same state, whose mother had experienced better economic conditions.

Schmitz and her co-author, Valentina Duque—an assistant professor in the Department of Public Administration and Policy at American University—don’t know how economic conditions pregnant women experienced affected fetal development. Perhaps the damage done was a result of stress, nutritional deprivation, or a combination of factors, they wrote.

The study makes the case that social safety net programs that provide support to women and families, “particularly during hard economic times, may improve the health of children—not just in the short term, but in the long term.”

Health care costs for elderly individuals are typically sky high, with Medicare often bearing the burden. Relatively small up-front investments in pregnant women—”even just having more parental leave for women, so they don’t have to be under a lot of stress or during a pregnancy”—may have sizable impacts on population health down the road, she contends.

“If there were ways to help mitigate these costs by making more investments [in people] at younger ages, that could be a potential net gain for society.”

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