Could Having More Children Impact Your DNA?

Scientists in Canada recently found that having more children may be protective against aging — essentially, that having offspring may ensure that one’s telomeres (those important parts of DNA linked to aging) stay lengthy. Here is our take on the matter:

Research Findings
To investigate the effects of childbirth on biological aging, researchers followed 75 Mayan women over the course of 13 years. The scientists measured telomere length before and after the 13-year period and found that women who had the most children also had the longest telomeres. So, it’s possible that the increased social support these mothers received as a result of their pregnancies may have allowed their bodies to focus energy on tissue maintenance (protecting against cellular aging). Essentially, energy normally used to deal with stress might instead be used to maintain the mother’s telomeres.

So What, Exactly, Are Telomeres?
Telomeres are small protective caps that surround the ends of our DNA, similar to the ends of shoelaces. Their presence protects the vital protein-coding DNA bits. With age, our telomeres gradually shorten — a process linked with all the biological changes and ailments that come later in life. Thus, the longer the telomere, the better.

What This Means for You
The size and specificity of this study (it only focused on Mayan women) makes it difficult to conclude that having that extra Suzy around will keep you feeling young.

Fortunately, there may be ways to protect our telomeres beyond the “Brady Bunch” phenomenon. Scientists have found that exercise and sitting less may also keep your telomeres lengthy. At the same time, you might want to avoid excess stress, excess weight and smoking, as these factors have been linked to the shortening of telomeres.

You may also be wondering if it’s possible to lengthen your telomeres. Although the science is limited, researchers at Stanford University have been able to lengthen the telomeres of skin cells by manipulating genetic signaling. The telomeres in treated cells lengthened for only a short period, which the scientists note may actually be ideal (too much cell growth could lead to cancer). Helen Blau, a professor of microbiology and immunology at Stanford, claims, “This new approach paves the way toward preventing or treating diseases of aging.”

Still, for now at least, prevention appears to be the best method of telomere nurturing.

(Feature photo by Виталий Смолыгин, publicdomainpictures.net)

Samantha Lunsky

Samantha Lunsky is an intern with the Healthy Aging Project, and a student in the Integrative Physiology Department at the University of Colorado Boulder.