The next time you’re having an argument with your teenagers about their homework, tell them that doing well in high school can improve their genetic code. You can even use new research from the University of California San Francisco to back up your claim.
The study, published last month in the Journal of Perinatology, took blood samples from the umbilical cords of 54 infants. Researchers then analyzed the telomere length of the newborns’ immune cells and compared the telomeres to information they received from the mother about her education, age, body mass index, and the child’s sex and birth weight.
Telomeres are the protective caps of genetic code on the ends of your chromosomes that help shield your genetic data. As you age, the telomeres become shorter and shorter, and the chances for transcription errors in cellular replication increase. Studies have linked shortened telomeres to a number of diseases such as dementia, osteoporosis, diabetes, and cancer.
The researchers found that mothers who had not graduated from high school — and who are grappling with high levels of socioeconomic stress as a result — gave birth to children with shortened telomeres.
Telomere length “turns out to be one of the strongest predictors of early diseases of aging and in many studies of early mortality,” said Elissa S. Epel, a psychiatrist at UCSF and a co-author of the study, during a presentation at the Association for Psychological Science Annual Convention. “It not only predicts the life of the cell, but it also predicts the health span of humans when they get diseases of aging.”
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Shortened telomeres could be a tremendous disadvantage for kids born to mothers without high school diplomas. “As far as we know, this is the first study to suggest that, right out of the gate, a mother’s education may impact what’s going on in her newborn at the cellular level,” said Dr. Janet Wojcicki, associate professor of pediatrics at UCSF, in a media release.
This problem isn’t isolated to just a few people. American taxpayers shell out some $9.4 billion each year to cover the costs of teen pregnancy, according to the most recent statistical report from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Though some efforts to reduce teen pregnancies are working, the teen birth rate in the U.S. remains higher than the rates in most other developed countries.
Only 40 percent of teen mothers ever graduate from high school. Of those teen girls who drop out of high school, nearly a third cite pregnancy or motherhood as the reason, according to the National Campaign to Prevent Teen and Unplanned Pregnancy.
Angela Reyes, director of the Detroit Hispanic Development Corporation, was a co-author of a study last year from the University of Michigan that linked socioeconomic stress to shortened telomeres in adults from at-risk communities. She says that the lack of education itself is not necessarily the problem, but that education gives adults the tools they need to avoid the significant stressors that can lead to this type of cellular damage. The combination of different factors is where the real problem manifests.
“There are numerous stressors,” Reyes told LifeZette. “Poverty, community violence, dealing with institutionalized racism. There really was a combination of factors. Any one of those things can have an affect, but not to the same extent as when they’re combined.”
She added, “It’s much more difficult to navigate things like education if you don’t have transportation and your kids don’t have food and your water is shut off.”
The genetic damage from these stressors cannot really be repaired. “Once telomeres weather, they’re worn down forever and you can’t rebuild them,” Reyes said. While some research has shown that positive mental health practices such as mindfulness and a healthy diet and exercise can help offset or slow cellular aging, it’s almost impossible to rebuild telomeres once they’ve deteriorated.
Some communities are making an effort to help teen parents get back on track. New programs across the country — in Arizona, Oregon, Massachusetts, and Washington — are adding daycares to high schools so these students still have a chance to graduate. The cost of these programs is offset by state vouchers.
The teen parents drop their kids off at the nursery programs and continue their coursework. Often they’re juggling schoolwork, part-time jobs, and childcare responsibilities all at once. Still, these students and programs are finding success. They’re showing a high graduation rate — around 95 percent.
For many teen parents, programs such as these mean a more hopeful future for them and their children.
“The fact that we found an effect of maternal education on cellular health when infants are essentially still in the womb emphasizes the importance of access to education, particularly for at-risk families,” said Dr. Janet Wojcicki in a media release. “If children are already disadvantaged at birth by their mother’s education level, we need to think about providing resources even earlier in the pipeline to mothers and families.”