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

September 21, 2016 by Suzanne Leigh
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

A walk at the mall or the park? New study shows, for moms and daughters, a walk in the park is best

November 17, 2017
Spending time together with family may help strengthen the family bond, but new research from the University of Illinois shows that specifically spending time outside in nature—even just a 20-minute walk—together can ...

Risk of distracted driving predicted by age, gender, personality and driving frequency

November 17, 2017
New research identifies age, gender, personality and how often people drive as potential risk factors for becoming distracted while driving. Young men, extroverted or neurotic people, and people who drive more often were ...

When male voles drink alcohol, but their partner doesn't, their relationship suffers

November 17, 2017
A study of the effect of alcohol on long-term relationships finds that when a male prairie vole has access to alcohol, but his female partner doesn't, the relationship suffers - similar to what has been observed in human ...

Spanking linked to increase in children's behavior problems

November 16, 2017
Children who have been spanked by their parents by age 5 show an increase in behavior problems at age 6 and age 8 relative to children who have never been spanked, according to new findings in Psychological Science, a journal ...

Multiplayer video games: Researchers discover link between skill and intelligence

November 15, 2017
Researchers at the University of York have discovered a link between young people's ability to perform well at two popular video games and high levels of intelligence.

Generous people give in a heartbeat—new study

November 15, 2017
Altruistic people are said to be "kind hearted" - and new research published in the journal Scientific Reports shows that generous people really are more in touch with their own hearts.

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.