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Aug 21, 2014 07:03 AM EDT

High Stress Hormone Levels Are Passed On From Mothers to Babies, Study

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The daughters of women who give birth at the age 30 or older are more likely to experience symptoms of depression as young adults, according to a recent study.
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Women in low-income groups experience high cortisol levels during pregnancy and due to this, their babies are born with elevated levels of the stress hormone, according to a study by the University of Colorado Denver. The researchers said that these children face a heightened risk of developing serious diseases later in life.

This is the first study to measure cortisol levels in infants and tie it up directly to the socioeconomic status of their mothers during pregnancy.        

Cortisol is a stress hormone produced by the hypothalamic pituitary adrenal (HPA)-axis. If produced abundantly, it can trigger several chronic ailments including cardiovascular disease and mental illness.

For the study, the researchers assessed 64 pregnant females in New Zealand for 19 key stress markers including unemployment, divorce, death of a friend, and physical or emotional abuse.

Other questions included: "Have you personally been forced to buy cheaper food so you could pay for other things needed? Have you put up with feeling cold to save on heating costs? Have you made use of food banks or food grants because you didn't have enough MONEY for food? Have you gone without fresh fruit or vegetables so you could pay for other things you needed? Have you received help in the form of clothes or MONEY from community organizations like the Salvation Army?"

The researchers found that women, who were highly stressed and materially-deprived, were associated with highest cortisol levels. They also delivered babies with higher cortisol levels.

"The babies of lower socioeconomic mothers had higher cortisol response to the stress of the vaccination," said study author Zaneta Thayer, assistant professor of anthropology, in a press release. "Such changes have elsewhere been associated with differences in cognition, temperament and physical health."

"Our findings suggest that stressful social environments experienced by a mother impact her offspring...and that this is already detectable in the first weeks after birth."

Thayer said that social support is necessary to reduce stress. Supporting the health and well-being of socially-disadvantaged women positively affects the health and well-being of their children and society.

The finding is published in the American Journal of Human Biology.

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