A Racial Gap in Physical Stress Biomarkers of Mothers One Year After They Give Birth

A new study from researchers at a large number of universities has found that African-American women undergo more physical “wear-and-tear” during the first year after giving birth than Latina and White women.

“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, a professor and distinguished research scholar at the Fralin Biomedical Research Institute at the Virginia Tech Carilion School of Medicine in Roanoke and a co-author of the paper.

The study analyzed a diverse group of more than 2,400 low-income women at five different clinical sites across the country. Researchers measured blood pressures, heart rates, cholesterol profiles, body mass indexes, waist-hip ratios, and other biomarkers in women six months and one year after they had given birth. Additionally, the participants were assessed before they gave birth, and some even before they became pregnant. The assessments were used to create a measurement on “allostatic load” which represents the cumulative physical and psychological strain on their bodies after delivery.

During pregnancy, dramatic changes occur in a woman’s immune and cardiovascular systems to support the developing fetus. In healthy women, maternal physiology gradually returns to normal within a year after delivery, but a persistently elevated allostatic load increases a woman’s risk for chronic diseases across a lifetime. The researchers believe their results are important for improving health and also to address interventions for disadvantaged groups.

The researches also found that women who breastfed for longer periods of time were more likely to have lower allostatic loads. They believe that this result could be a cumulative effect reflecting longer durations of breastfeeding compounded by a better socioeconomic status for women who can afford to breastfeed for longer periods.

“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 and a co-author 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, “Cardiovascular and Metabolic Risk in Women in the First Year Postpartum: Allostatic Load as a Function of Race, Ethnicity, and Poverty Status,” was published on the website of the American Journal of Perinatology. It may be accessed here.

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