A study has found that children born to Latina and African-American women suffering from prenatal anxiety and depression have a higher likelihood of developing asthma.

Noting prior research linking maternal mental health with asthma development in offspring among white populations, scientists at the Columbia Center for Children's Environmental Health at Columbia University in New York sought to evaluate this relationship among low income, inner-city minority women in particular. Minority children suffer disproportionately from asthma and respiratory illnesses, further prompting researchers to theorize that stress during pregnancy may affect fetal respiratory development and health.

Monitoring Prenatal, Perinatal, and Postnatal Stress

The team administered questionnaires from the Psychiatric Epidemiology Research Instrument-Demoralization Scale to 279 pregnant Latina and black women living in New York City. The scale identified the participants' stress levels before and during pregnancy and postnatally.

According to lead study author Marilyn Reyes, about 70 percent of the women who indicated high levels of anxiety or depression during their pregnancies reported that their child wheezed before the age of 5. Prenatal stress was significantly higher among mothers whose children were either transient or persistent wheezers, referring to those that wheeze before the age of 3 or from birth to 5 years old, respectively.

Asthma Takes Away From the Quality of Life

Asthma is a chronic inflammatory condition of the airways affecting an estimated 17 million Americans. Symptoms of the disease include wheezing attacks, chest tightness, shortness of breath and coughing, with the severity of the disorder varying greatly. Triggers that commonly cause attacks include dust, animal hair, changes in weather, environmental chemicals, exercise, pollen, respiratory colds, stress and cigarette smoke.

When exposed to a trigger, an asthma patient's airway muscles become tight causing the lining of the air passages to swell, thereby restricting air flow. Severe attacks warrant emergency room visits and can be life-threatening. Medications are utilized to prevent attacks or to alleviate symptoms upon exposure to triggers. While no cure is available, patients can manage their conditions and live normal lives under the guidance of a trained medical professional.

Asthma Can Aggravate Anxiety

Anxiety refers to a natural human response to a stressor. While it can trigger uncomfortable physical and emotional symptoms, the psychological state allows people to react to impending threats effectively. However, when it becomes chronic and excessive, anxiety disorder may be diagnosed. Categories of anxiety disorder include obsessive compulsive disorder, post traumatic stress disorder, panic disorder, social anxiety disorder, separation anxiety disorder, and generalized anxiety disorder. Each of those types of anxiety disorders is defined by unique symptoms, triggers and treatments, though they generally share similar behavioral and emotional patterns. Furthermore, anxiety and depression have often been linked, with many individuals experiencing both emotional conditions.

This study, published online in the journal Annals of Allergy, Asthma & Immunology, adds further evidence to research that suggests that children are especially vulnerable to developing respiratory problems during prenatal development. It is the first study to find such associations between maternal stress and asthma symptoms among urban minorities. The scientists stated that it is critical to understand this association to establish effective interventions among disadvantaged groups.

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Maisha M. Syeda, MSc.
Sigal Sharf


Date of original publication:

Updated: February 02, 2017