Mothers' anxiety linked to child asthma risk
15 April 2009
A study by scientists at the University of Bristol has found that the higher the level of anxiety in an expectant mother, the higher the likelihood that their child developed asthma.
Asthma is a common health problem in the UK, costing the NHS an estimated £817 million a year. Many people develop asthma in early childhood, but little is known about the causes. Previous studies have suggested high stress levels in parents may increase the risk of a child developing disease.
In this study, researchers analysed data from 5810 mothers and children who took part in the Avon Longitudinal Study of Parents and Children (ALSPAC), core-funded by the Trust, which has followed more than 14 000 people for 15 years.
The researchers measured the level of anxiety in expectant women when they were 18 and 32 weeks pregnant. They then looked for diagnosis or signs of asthma in their children when they reached the age of seven-and-a-half.
The study revealed a strong link between the two, with a higher incidence of asthma in children born to women with the highest anxiety scores at the 32 week stage.
Further studies are needed to work out the exact mechanism, but the researchers suggest that stress may affect genes related to asthma or immune system development through epigenetic changes - alterations to the way genes are expressed, which are often caused by environmental factors and can be inherited.
"It would be presumptive to suggest a clinical intervention on the basis of our findings," said John Henderson, from the University of Bristol and who led the research.
"But there are current approaches to psychological management of stress during pregnancy, which is after all a physiological response of women to their environment."
"If our findings are replicated, a trial of stress reduction and follow up of the children to look at immune development and wheezing or asthma would be attractive."
Image: Child using an inhaler; Wellcome Images
Cookson H et al. Mothers’ anxiety during pregnancy is associated with asthma in their children. J Allergy Clin Immunol 2009.