Science & Technology



Colorado researchers find link between moms' experience of racism and kids' aging

Meg Wingerter, The Denver Post on

Published in Science & Technology News

Mothers’ experiences of racism showed up in their children’s bodies, with altered patterns of aging – though scientists cautioned they aren’t sure if their findings will translate into future health problems for the kids.

Two Colorado researchers looked at 205 pairs of mothers and children from non-white ethnic groups living in Massachusetts, in cooperation with scientists elsewhere. When mothers reported they’d experienced more types of racial discrimination, such as mistreatment at work or when looking for housing, their children appeared to be biologically “younger” than their chronological ages of between 3 and 7. Children of mothers who didn’t report discrimination had about the expected biological age. (The study didn’t quantify how distressing the mothers found the discrimination.)

As people age, the way DNA expresses itself changes predictably, giving each person a biological age that might not be the same as the number of years they’ve lived. A sector of the anti-aging industry has keyed into this phenomenon with products that promise to reduce someone’s biological age, theoretically holding off both visible aging and diseases associated with late life, such as dementia and most cancers.

Prior studies have found an association between accelerated biological aging and health problems in adults, and established that adverse conditions in utero are linked to faster aging in adulthood, said Dr. Zachary Laubach, a research associate in evolutionary biology at University of Colorado Boulder and one of the researchers involved in the study.

For example, another recent study found that people who were fetuses during a famine in the Netherlands in winter 1944-1945 had faster biological aging than people who weren’t exposed, he said, and other studies found they had more midlife health problems. The science isn’t settled on whether the accelerated DNA aging caused those health problems, or if they both resulted from some other underlying mechanism.

Intuitively, then, slower biological aging might seem like a good thing, but that isn’t necessarily the case, said Dr. Wei Perng, an associate professor of epidemiology at Colorado School of Public Health and one of the researchers. The study didn’t look at whether the children were smaller than expected or met their developmental milestones later, so it can’t rule out immediate effects, and not much other information exists on aging in children, she said.


“A deviation we see from the population level (of aging speed) is probably not good,” she said.

The children’s aging might accelerate as they grow up, or they could hit puberty later, which would possibly shorten their fertile years, Laubach said. Alternatively, they might not see any clear differences.

For now, all they can say is that mothers’ experiences of racism have a noticeable effect on how children age, but not what that will mean for their health over time, Perng said.

“We weren’t trying to say, ‘This is good,’ or ‘This is bad,'” she said.


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