Discoveries and Data: Exposures and Risk Factors

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title_ef_stress-6734197

pic_stress-7359534Does stress cause birth defects? Although stress is very common, research about its potential impact in pregnancy poses significant challenges. Individuals experience and report stress differently. And its physical effects are not yet well understood.

STRESSFUL LIFE EVENTS RAISE RISK

We asked over 2000 mothers about 3 stressful life events occurring around conception or in early pregnancy: death, divorce/separation and job loss.

bullet-8544549 At least 1 major event was reported by 27% of the mothers whose babies did

not have birth defects.

bullet-8544549 Stressful life events were 30%-50% more common among mothers whose babies had any of the birth defects studied: oral clefts, heart, neural tube

and limb defects.

bullet-8544549 The difference was not driven by other known risk factors for birth defects such as obesity, smoking or binge drinking.
bullet-8544549 The study did not examine possible lifestyle changes or coping behaviors that may have influenced risk.
bullet-8544549 Because this study looked at only 3 stressful life events, results cannot be generalized to stress in other situations—whether from a different major event, chronic stress or the stress of daily life.

HOW MIGHT STRESSFUL LIFE EVENTS BE LINKED TO BIRTH DEFECTS?

At least 2 other population-based studies to date have linked birth defects and major stressful life events. Although the ways stressful life events might influence prenatal development are not yet well understood, they may include:

bullet-8544549 Physical effects. Stress is known to cause physiological changes which may alter blood flow to the uterus.
bullet-8544549 Behavior changes. Stressful life events may reduce healthy activities such as eating a nutritious diet or taking multivitamins. Stress may also trigger risk-raising behaviors like cigarette smoking or binge drinking.
bullet-8544549 Shared underlying cause. Stressful life events may be a marker for other risk factors, rather than being directly linked to birth defects risk. For example, low socioeconomic status—a risk factor for some birth defects—may predispose an individual to life events such as job loss.

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