By: Yassmine ElSayed
CAIRO, Dec. 30 (SEE) – Early relationships between mothers and their infants can influence health across the lifespan, for better or worse, AP reported.
A recent report published by the news wire explained that adults who report more household dysfunction and abuse during their childhood are more likely to suffer disease as adults. On the contrary, those with healthy and supportive relationships during early life are better at handling stress and regulating their emotions.
However, scientists do not completely understand how these environments get “under the skin” to shape health. A 2017 paper showed a possible link between increasing depression symptoms in mothers and cellular damage in their infants.
One area of burgeoning research focuses on telomeres. Telomeres are caps at the end of our DNA that protect chromosomes.
Since the length of telomeres is affected by our genetics and age, they’re sometimes thought of as part of a “biological clock” that reflects the age of our cells. As telomeres shorten over time, people are more likely to experience a host of negative health outcomes, such as cardiovascular disease, dementia, diabetes, cancer, obesity and even death.
Interestingly, telomeres can degrade more quickly when a person suffers from psychological stress. When we experience stress, our bodies release a hormone called cortisol, which influences our emotional responses as well as our energy metabolism, learning and memory. This may be one mechanism that connects psychological stress to telomere length and ultimately physical health. Cells that are exposed to cortisol have shorter telomeres and less telomerase, which is the enzyme responsible for maintaining the ends of telomeres.
This process may explain how psychological stress is converted to biological “wear and tear.” Indeed, adolescents with depressed mothers have heightened cortisol stress responses and shorter telomeres than their peers, even when the adolescents themselves are not depressed.
Infancy is a sensitive period, when individuals are strongly influenced by their environment. One way to study how early stress may influence health is to look at how infants respond to their parents’ stress. Studies suggest that infants exposed to maternal depression may be less likely to engage socially and experience more negative emotion.
The results highlight how patterns of health across the lifespan may be influenced in the first 18 months of life. This early stress may put young children on track for the early onset of poor health outcomes.
The silver lining is that infancy is a sensitive developmental period, when humans are especially responsive to their environments. Fostering positive experiences between infants and their mothers – as well as providing affordable, scientifically supported treatment services for mothers experiencing depression – may allow infants to move toward a healthier life trajectory.