Mothers of children with autism may face chronic stress, higher risks for heart disease

September 21, 2016 by Suzanne Leigh, University of California, San Francisco
Mothers of children with autism may face chronic stress, higher risks for heart disease
Credit: University of California, San Francisco

Mothers who were raising children with autism and reported chronic stress were more likely to have high levels of "bad" cholesterol and lower levels of protective progenitor cells than lower-stressed mothers of "neurotypical" children – two factors that may boost their chances of heart disease.

Heart disease is the leading cause of death for women in the United States, killing close to 300,000 in 2013, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

The study, published online today in the journal Brain, Behavior and Immunity, looked at among healthy nonsmoking women between the ages of 20 and 50 with at least one child aged 2 to 16. One group consisted of 31 with who were raising a child with an . They were compared with a second group of 37 mothers, reporting low to moderate stress levels, whose children were neurotypical, meaning they did not have autism. Mothers in both groups were similar in age and , factors that are both implicated in cardiovascular risk.

Researchers led by Kirstin Aschbacher, PhD, of UC San Francisco found that 30 percent of the mothers of children with autism had levels of low-density lipoprotein (LDL) – the so-called – equal to or higher than the moderate risk benchmark of 130 mg/dL. In contrast, 8 percent of mothers of neurotypical children had LDL equal to or above this benchmark.

"Children with autism are more likely to engage in behaviors that can be emotionally stressful for mothers, like becoming unpredictably aggressive, biting or hurting themselves, or expressing little affection," said Aschbacher, assistant professor in the UCSF Department of Psychiatry. "Even knowing the challenges these mothers face, we were surprised by the differences in ."

Positive Family Interactions Also Protective of Heart Health

The mothers of autistic children were found to have lower counts of progenitor cells. These young cells travel from the bone marrow to the bloodstream and are believed to protect the blood vessel linings from plaque buildup that can lead to heart attack and stroke.

"These cellular findings suggests that stress may be capable of impairing our body's natural capacity for self-repair," said Aschbacher. "Just like the body can heal from a cut without treatment, the body uses these to help heal microdamage to the blood vessels. The stressed mothers had fewer of these cells."

In addition, the researchers found that mothers of both autistic and neurotypical children, who reported a greater number of positive interactions with their families over a seven-day period, had a higher number of these protective cells.

"It's clear that stress can contribute to chronic disease, but fixing stress is not as simple as taking a deep breath or an occasional yoga class," said Aschbacher.

"Our study shows that the damaging aspects of stress can happen in families in everyday life. We don't know enough about how to treat stress from a family systems perspective.

"More women die of cardiovascular disease than men. The average age of the women in the study was early 40s – a critical time for women to make lifestyle changes and think about managing stress at home," she said.

Explore further: Stress exposure during pregnancy observed in mothers of children with autism

More information: Kirstin Aschbacher et al. Chronic stress is associated with reduced circulating hematopoietic progenitor cell number: A maternal caregiving model, Brain, Behavior, and Immunity (2016). DOI: 10.1016/j.bbi.2016.09.009

Related Stories

Stress exposure during pregnancy observed in mothers of children with autism

June 7, 2016
Stress during pregnancy has been linked to several conditions, including some instances of autism spectrum disorder. Now, researchers at the University of Missouri School of Medicine have observed a variant of a stress-sensitive ...

Mothers with diabetes, other metabolic conditions, more likely to also have anti-fetal brain autoantibodies

June 17, 2016
Mothers of children with autism and were diagnosed with metabolic conditions during pregnancy, particularly gestational and type 2 diabetes, were more likely to have anti-fetal brain autoantibodies in their blood compared ...

Single working moms carry a heart burden

June 16, 2016
(HealthDay)—Single working moms, who are often pressed for time and money, may have to worry about their heart health, too.

Support needed to offset mother's stress levels

June 9, 2014
(Medical Xpress)—A lack of collaborative support for the mothers of children with autism reaching school age is causing them high levels of stress, according to a Curtin University study.

Mothers raising children with autism prone to depression, stress

May 6, 2014
Mothers of young children with autism spectrum disorders experience significantly higher levels of depressive symptoms and stress than mothers of typically developing children, a study by researchers at the University of ...

Being born small or stress during pregnancy can lead to greater disease risk in mothers

June 13, 2016
Low birth weight or stress during pregnancy can lead to long-term health problems in women, according to a study published today in The Journal of Physiology.

Recommended for you

Engaging in physical activity decreases people's chance of developing depression

April 24, 2018
An international team including researchers from King's College London have found physical activity can protect against the emergence of depression, regardless of age and geographical region.

Early childhood interventions show mixed results on child development

April 24, 2018
Early childhood interventions may have some efficacy in boosting measures of child health and development in low income countries, but more work is needed to sort out how to implement these interventions, according to a new ...

People expect their memory to fade as early as their 50s

April 24, 2018
People across the UK expect their memory to worsen in their 50s, according to new research from Heriot-Watt University.

Imagining a positive outcome biases subsequent memories

April 24, 2018
Imagining that a future event will go well may lead you to remember it more positively after it's over, according to findings from research published in Psychological Science, a journal of the Association for Psychological ...

Depressed, inactive and out of work—study reveals lives of lonely young adults

April 24, 2018
New research from King's College London shows that lonely young adults are more likely to experience mental health problems and more likely to be out of work than their peers. The study, published today in Psychological Medicine, ...

Sense of control and meaning helps protect women from anxiety

April 24, 2018
People who feel in control of their lives and who find purpose and meaning in life are less likely to have anxiety disorders even when going through the toughest times, according to a study led by the University of Cambridge.

0 comments

Please sign in to add a comment. Registration is free, and takes less than a minute. Read more

Click here to reset your password.
Sign in to get notified via email when new comments are made.