Prenatal stress may have lifelong effects, study shows

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Stress occurs when demands or challenges cause the brain and the rest of the body to react with emotional or physical tension. Stressors can be perceived as positive or negative.

Positive stress may result from situations that a person feels they can cope with, such as daily challenges and responsibilities related to work or school. There is even evidence that rising to the challenge has some health benefits.

However, day-to-day and moderate stressors can be perceived as negative if the person feels that they lack control.

Negative stress may be more likely to occur during life-altering events such as a divorce, a job loss, or the death of a loved one, and receiving extra social support can help ease the impact.

Health events, including serious complications of pregnancy, such as preeclampsia and infections, can result in major stress.

Scientists recognize the effects that stress can have on physical and mental health. If stress is prolonged, it can affect the immune system, gastrointestinal tract, cardiovascular system, and reproductive system.

The impact of stress on the reproductive system is an area of study gaining momentum in the scientific community.

Recent research has shown that maternal stress can affect pregnancy and fetal metabolic functioning and emotional and cognitive development.

A recent article in the International Review of Neurobiology suggests that maternal stress from life events, natural disasters, anxiety, and depression increases the risk of emotional, behavioral, and cognitive problems for the child later in life.

However, scientists have been unsure whether these effects are short-lived or more lasting.

In a study that spanned more than 4 decades, scientists from Massachusetts General Hospital and Harvard Medical School followed 40 men and 40 women from before birth to mid-life to reveal whether prenatal stress caused differences in stress regulation into adulthood.

Half of the participants had a history of major depression or psychosis that was in remission.

The authors report that their sample was enriched by people whose mothers had obstetric complications, such as fevers and preeclampsia associated with high maternal cytokine levels.

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