Parenthood Isn’t Destroying Your DNA
Why you don’t have to worry about your kids destroying your genes
As a married, late-20’s person, I can honestly say that there is nothing more terrifying than children. They are the Next Big Step in life: you’re born, start school, finish school, turn 18/21, get married, make babies, get divorced, die.
But this week, you’d be forgiven for being terrified of ever having children. News sources have been screaming out that not only are your kids draining your bank account and soul, they’re also causing damage to your DNA.
It sounds absolutely terrifying.
It’s not just the idea that children might have an impact on your health. We know that — numerous studies have looked at the issues that child-rearing can have on your health, and conclude that there are major impacts on things like your sleep and heart health. Taking care of kids is a huge additional load to a person’s life, and it’s not surprising that this comes with some associated health impacts.
But this is even scarier. It’s your DNA.
Fortunately, there’s good news.
There’s probably nothing to worry about when it comes to children and your DNA at all.
The study that the media is going crazy about is a piece of epidemiological research recently published in the journal Human Reproduction. The researchers looked at a group of chemicals called telomeres, which are a group of substances that are involved in DNA replication. Basically, whenever your body makes new cells, telomeres are what stops the new cells from having DNA damage. There is good evidence that shorter telomeres are linked with aging: that as your body ages, the telomeres get shorter, and this may in fact be one of the reasons that old people are more likely to die.
Essentially, telomeres are important, and shorter ones are worse.
This study analysed the data from 1,500 women, split into 2 groups; have or have not had a baby. The researchers compared the telomere length in women who had had a baby with those who hadn’t, and found that not only did having a baby decrease your telomere length, but having more babies made it even worse.
The researchers concluded that the shortened telomere length was equivalent to roughly 11 years of life, making babies more damaging to your DNA than both smoking and obesity!
So why shouldn’t you be worried?
The one thing that virtually no one mentioned — or, if they did, it was 800 words into an 850-word article — is that this was observational research. The scientists looked back at a group of women, and compared an outcome — in this case telomere length — with a risk factor: babies.
The issue with this type of research is that it can never prove causation. There are hundreds, if not thousands, of factors that may be associated with telomere length. The researchers in this study controlled for a few of them — age, gender, income — but it’s just not possible to control for them all. It could just be that there is a factor that is associated with having kids and telomere length, which would mean that the observed association is actually caused by something other than the whole parenthood thing.
This idea is borne out by the stats — in this study, women who had had at least one baby were much less healthy than women who hadn’t had any. Babies were associated with higher levels of smoking, poverty, old age, and irregular periods. It seems very likely that the observed difference between women with kids and those without is actually better explained by societal factors than by the children, especially when you consider that the difference in telomere length between the richest and the poorest women was almost three times as big as the difference between women who had and hadn’t given birth.
Basically, poverty is really shit for your health, which will come as no surprise to anyone who isn’t rich.
It’s also worth mentioning that the scary headline figure — “Offspring add 11 years to DNA” from the Daily Mail — is actually a bit misleading. What this study found was that there was a 4.2% reduction in telomere length between the two groups of women, but we don’t actually know what that means in terms of years of life. Telomere science is mind-bogglingly complicated, so the 11 years is basically just a guess at this point.
Ultimately it’s the same old story that we’ve heard too many times before. Is there a chance that your DNA is damaged by the act of having kids? Maybe. Is it much more likely that this is related to something in the environment than any medical problems children cause? Definitely.
The main take-away of this study is not that you should worry about your DNA if you have children. That is a scaremongering headline that’s totally wrong. What this study is really showing is that there are societal inequalities that may have a serious impact on the health of women who choose to have children.
Something that, of course, we already know.
Women who have children experience discrimination in any number of forums when compared to men who do the same, or even women who do not choose to have kids. If anything, this study stands as testament to the importance of paid maternity leave, free childcare, and facilities for working mothers.
Bottom line? Your children might make you crazy, impact your income, even ruin your sleep.
But they probably aren’t damaging your DNA.
No matter what the scary stories say.