Mom's Depression 'Ages' Children

Fran Lowry

June 19, 2015

Young children with mothers who are severely depressed are more likely to have shorter white blood cell telomere length, a hallmark of cellular aging, and to exhibit behavior problems, new research shows.

"Exposure to psychological stress and depression are associated with shorter telomere length in adults, possibly through associated lifelong oxidative stressors," investigators led by Janet Wojcicki, PhD, from the University of California, San Francisco (UCSF), write.

"When people think about behavioral issues with children, they think about the psychological components and how that might impact school performance and interaction with peers, but they don't necessarily think that these types of behavioral problems can impact at the cellular level," Dr Wojcicki told Medscape Medical News.

"This is the interesting point of our finding, that there can actually be a deleterious impact on shortening telomere length, which, as we know, is associated with chronic disease and inflammatory processes," she said.

The study was published online June 16 in Translational Psychiatry.

Novel Finding

"Exposure to maternal depression increases risk for future depression and behavior problems in children, and Latino youth are at high risk. I have two longitudinal cohorts of Latino children at high risk for obesity and metabolic disease and am evaluating the relationship between maternal mental health and child feeding and obesity issues," Dr Wojcicki explained.

"We also decided to look at behavioral problems in children, because although there have been novel findings about telomere length and exposure to stress in adults, few studies have been done in children," she said.

The investigators assessed the length of telomeres from the white blood cells of a relatively homogeneous group of low-income Latino children. The study population included 108 4-year-olds and 92 5-year-olds. The children were recruited at birth from two San Francisco hospitals, and many of the 5-year-olds were the same children who were tested at age 4.

The researchers also looked at the telomeres of their mothers and screened for prenatal and postnatal maternal depression, as well as behavioral disorders, including oppositional defiant behavior, in the children at ages 3, 4, and 5 years.

Children who had oppositional defiant behavior at 3, 4, or 5 years had shorter telomere length than those who did not have such behavior by ~450 base pairs (P < .01).

Independent predictors for shorter telomere length at 4 and 5 years of age included oppositional defiant disorder at age 3, 4, or 5 years (B = -359.25; 95% confidence interval [CI], 633.84 - 84.66; P = .01); exposure to maternal clinical depression at age 3 years (B = -363.99; 95% CI, 651.24 - 764.74; P = .01); shorter maternal telomere length (B = 502.92; 95% CI, 189.21 - 816.63); and younger paternal age at the child's birth (B = 24.63; 95% CI, 1.14 - 48.12).

"Our study is the first to link maternal clinical depression and oppositional defiant behavior with shorter telomere length in the preschool years. But this knowledge isn't really ready for prime time use, and we don't recommend regular testing," Dr Wojcicki said.

Dr Janet Wojcicki

"There are no good norms yet in terms of what is a healthy telomere length and how to intervene, but I think that there is often a disconnect between approaches to physical health and mental health, and the fact that we are seeing this biological aging as early as 4 and 5 years of age and that there is an association between biological aging and psychological pathology is, I think, novel. It emphasizes the need to take these behavioral disturbances seriously on all levels and to seek treatment and evaluations," she said.

A "Wake-up Call"

"The study is interesting, although the telomere story is not so new anymore," David C. Rettew, MD, from the University of Vermont Children's Hospital, Burlington, told Medscape Medical News.

"While the link between psychological stress and telomere length has been known for some time, the finding of telomere shortening in such a young sample should be a wake-up call that we need to be helping these families as early as possible," Dr Rettew said.

"The study also highlights once again that our previous views of something being either psychological or biological really don't hold water scientifically. Environmental events change the body and change the brain. If you think about it, how else could it work?"

The study was funded by the NH-NIDDK, Hellman Family Foundation, Robert Wood Johnson, the NASPGHAN Foundation, UCSF, and NIH/NCRR. Dr Wojcicki and Dr Rettew report no financial relationships.

Transl Psychiatry. Published on June 16, 2015. Full text


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