Date of Award


Document Type


Degree Name


Organizational Unit

College of Arts Humanities and Social Sciences, Psychology

First Advisor

Elysia Poggi Davis


Psychology, Healthcare, Cost of healthcare, Pregnancy, Mental health


Healthcare costs associated with treatment of the most prevalent age-related diseases is astronomical, approximately $568 billion in 2010. As these costs are projected to rise as the older-adult population grows, it is of increasing urgency to elucidate the origins of these diseases. Telomere length (TL) in early life is a promising biomarker of long-term disease risk and longevity, and there is growing evidence that TL reflects experiences during fetal development. However, the link between maternal mental health during pregnancy and offspring aging is understudied, and there are several methodological constraints in existing literature that limit the interpretation of recent findings. The two studies described here seek to expand the literature surrounding how maternal psychological distress relates to differences in TL at birth among a sample experiencing pregnancy complications, and 2) whether TL in childhood reflect differences in prenatal exposure to psychological distress.

In Chapter One, we combined data from two prospective cohorts of mothers and their children followed from pregnancy through childhood (Cohort 1, n=48; Cohort 2, n=54) to investigate whether exposure to maternal psychological distress across pregnancy was associated with long-lasting differences in TL. In Chapter Two, we utilized data collected from a prospective cohort of mothers (n=120) who were either at high (n = 95) or low risk (n=25) for preterm birth, and we examined how pregnancy complications and distress were related to newborn TL and may interact to influence TL.

Our data suggest that elevated prenatal distress across pregnancy predicts shorter TL among children ages 6-16, even after adjusting for postnatal maternal distress (β =-0.53, t(91)=-3.60, p=0.001). However, we find that maternal psychological distress does not exacerbate the effects of total pregnancy complications on newborn TL (β=0.06, t(111)=0.33, p=0.74).

These findings add to growing evidence that maternal mental health may have a lasting effect on offspring health and development, but our findings suggest these effects may be dependent on the prenatal medical context. Our studies also highlight the need for future studies to carefully characterize the prenatal and postnatal environments when investigating the fetal programming of telomere length.

Publication Statement

Copyright is held by the author. This work may only be accessed by members of the University of Denver community. The work is provided by permission of the author for individual research purposes only and may not be further copied or distributed. User is responsible for all copyright compliance.

Rights Holder

Stephanie Stout-Oswald


Received from author

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94 pgs