Women Who Give Birth in Their Thirties Have Longer Telomeres, a Marker of Healthy Cellular Aging

December 29, 2016

Several studies have found that late maternal age at last childbirth is associated with maternal longevity. A new study by Nicole Schupf, PhD, DrPH, professor of Epidemiology at the Columbia Mailman School of Public Health, and colleagues examined whether late maternal age was also associated with longer telomere length, a marker of cellular aging. Telomeres are caps at the end of each strand of DNA that protect the chromosomes and are considered to be essential parts of human cells that affect the aging process. The findings are published online in Menopause, the Journal of The North American Menopause Society.

Among families with exceptional aging, a recent study from the Long Life Family Study found that older mothers live longer than those who gave birth in their twenties. Women who had their last child after the age of 33 were twice as likely to live to the top fifth percentile of longevity among women in their age category compared with women who had their last birth before the age of 29 (Sun et al., 2015). 

In the new study, researchers studied women in the U.S. and Denmark over the age of 70 from the Long Life Family Study. There were 387 women at least 70 years old who gave birth to at least one child and lived to the top fifth percentile of their birth cohort, or died before the top fifth percentile of their birth cohort died.

Women with a later age at birth of their last child—34 to 37 or over 38—were found to have increased odds of being in the longest third of telomere length compared with women who had their last child by the age of 29. The strength of the association with the longest telomere length increased as the maternal age at birth of the last child became later in life.

“Our finding suggests that late maternal age at last childbirth is a marker for rate of aging and, if hereditary, might be associated with genetic variants that play a role in exceptional survival,” said Schupf, who is also a professor in the Gertrude H. Sergievsky Center, and the Taub Institute at Columbia University Medical Center. 

"These results suggest a potential genetic basis for the relationship between reproductive life-span, longevity, and an underlying mechanism related to biological aging,” concluded Schupf. “However, further research is needed that looks at the effect on the relationship between maternal age and telomere length of other influences on decisions related to  childbearing, which can include economic factors such as income and occupational status, the number of previous children and a special desire for a male or female child, as well as personal relationships.” 

The researcher plans to also examine whether extended maternal age is a marker for healthy aging and longevity in all family members.