Economic Stress May Affect a Baby in the Womb, Study Says

Socioeconomic stress may put children at risk for health problems.


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Pregnancy can be a stressful time for any expectant mother. But significant socioeconomic stress during pregnancy may have lasting effects on a baby’s health, according to a new study.

study published Monday in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences found that children born into disadvantaged families may have more health issues than children whose mothers face less adversity. Chronic stress during pregnancy may cause the immune system to mount a physiological response that can disrupt a fetus’ brain development, the research says.

Led by researchers at Brigham and Women’s Hospital and National Institute of Child Health and Development, the study collected the maternal sera, or cord blood, of 1,494 expectant mothers in the New England Family Study during their third trimester of pregnancy.

Researchers then monitored levels of specific immune chemicals in the blood, and examined their effects on children after birth.

The researchers found that women facing social and economic stressors tend to have lower levels of interleukin-8, a chemical that helps regulate the body’s response to inflammation, infection, and trauma. That deficiency may negatively affect a child’s brain development.

As it reacts to stress, the body produces glucocorticoids, or stress hormones, that reduce the inflammatory response. Chronic socioeconomic stress, then, may explain reduced levels of pro-inflammatory chemical interleukin-8.

Specifically, the researchers found that children born into the most disadvantaged homes were 4.6 times more likely to have neurologic abnormalities at four months old, and twice as likely at one year old, than children from less disadvantaged families.

Children born into socially and financially disadvantaged homes are not predestined to have health issues, but lead researcher Jill Goldstein, chair of the Brigham Research Institute Center for Research on Women’s Health and Gender Biology, says chronic socioeconomic stress can contribute to issues later in life.

“The impact of social inequalities on health outcomes have early origins that may be retained throughout life,” Goldstein says.

Goldstein also cautions that at-risk children should receive early cognitive and emotional intervention.