A study of a racially diverse group of 2,400 low-income women has revealed that African-American women undergo more physical wear-and-tear during the first year of motherhood than White and Latino women. The joint-study conducted by researchers from the Eunice Kennedy Shriver National Institute of Child Health and Human Development’s Community Child Health Network also found that mothers who breastfeed seem to have some protection from the damage to health caused by the physical stresses of pregnancy and childbirth.
“All mothers are affected by stress, but low-income women and especially African-American and Hispanic women have more adverse health-risk profiles during their children’s first years of life,” said Sharon Landesman Ramey, one of the study’s authors. “Our study was designed to look for biomarkers that are sensitive to psychological and physical stressors, and in turn determine whether those stressors contribute to poor outcomes for mothers and children.”
To reach these conclusions, several biomarkers were recorded for the purpose of the study by working groups of clinicians six months and one year after giving birth. These included blood pressure, heart rates, cholesterol profiles and waist-hip ratios. Some women were assessed before they gave birth, and some even before they conceived. These readings were used to create composite measurements of “allostatic load”, which represents the cumulative physical and psychological strain on the women’s bodies after giving birth. Readings were also taken to examine the post-delivery effects of pregnancy on women’s cardiometabolic risks in partnership with groups at five clinical sites in the United States.
It should be pointed out that half of the women studied were classified as overweight or obese prior to becoming pregnant.
Maternal physiology gradually normalizes within a year of delivery for healthy women, however, a persistently elevated allostatic load increases a woman’s risk for chronic diseases across a lifetime.
“We thoroughly looked at the effects of stress alongside levels of poverty and minority status to understand poor health outcomes for moms and children,” said Madeleine Shalowitz, a research professor of Pediatrics at the Pritzker School of Medicine at the University of Chicago, program director of Outcomes Research at NorthShore University HealthSystem Research Institute, and a co-investigator in the study. “Filling this knowledge gap could lead to health interventions to lower the risk of chronic disease for mothers, many of whom are planning to have more children. As many of these women will become pregnant again, improving their health will lead to a healthier next pregnancy.”
The study was published in the December 14 edition of the American Journal of Perinatology.