Sex differences in effects of maternal risk and protective factors in childhood and pregnancy on newborn telomere length

Psychoneuroendocrinology. 2018 Sep;95:74-85. doi: 10.1016/j.psyneuen.2018.05.025. Epub 2018 May 17.


Little research has examined determinants of newborn telomere length, a potential biomarker of lifetime disease risk impacted by prenatal exposures. No study has examined whether maternal exposures in childhood influence newborn telomere length or whether there are sex differences in the maternal factors that influence newborn telomere length. We tested whether a range of maternal risk and protective factors in childhood and pregnancy were associated with newborn telomere length among 151 sociodemographically diverse mother-infant dyads. We further examined whether the pattern of associations differed by infant sex. Newborn telomere length was assessed from cord blood collected at birth. Risk/protective factors included maternal health (smoking, body mass index), socioeconomic status (education, income), stress exposures, and mental health (depressive and posttraumatic stress disorder symptoms) in pregnancy as well as maternal experiences of abuse (physical, emotional, sexual) and familial emotional support in childhood. When examined within the whole sample, only maternal smoking in pregnancy and familial emotional support in childhood emerged as significant predictors of newborn telomere length. Male and female newborns differed in their pattern of associations between the predictors and telomere length. Among males, maternal smoking, higher body mass index, and elevated depressive symptoms in pregnancy and maternal sexual abuse in childhood were associated with shorter newborn telomere length; higher maternal educational attainment and household income in pregnancy and greater maternal familial emotional support in childhood were associated with longer newborn telomere length. Together, these factors accounted for 34% of the variance in male newborn telomere length. None of the risk/protective factors were associated with female newborn telomere length. The results suggest that male fetuses are particularly susceptible to maternal exposure effects on newborn telomere length. These findings have implications for elucidating mechanisms contributing to sex disparities in health.

Keywords: Cord blood; Maternal exposures; Newborn; Sex differences; Telomere length.

Publication types

  • Research Support, N.I.H., Extramural
  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't

MeSH terms

  • Adult
  • Birth Weight
  • Child
  • Female
  • Fetal Blood
  • Humans
  • Infant
  • Infant, Newborn
  • Male
  • Maternal Exposure
  • Mothers
  • Parturition
  • Pregnancy
  • Pregnancy Complications
  • Prenatal Exposure Delayed Effects / physiopathology*
  • Protective Factors
  • Risk Factors
  • Sex Characteristics
  • Sex Factors
  • Social Class
  • Telomere
  • Telomere Homeostasis / physiology*
  • Telomere Shortening / physiology*