Children of Older Alcoholic Mothers Are More Susceptible to Fetal Alcohol Syndrome Disorders

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Even though alcohol consumption during pregnancy has the potential to cause lifelong disabilities and developmental problems in children, 10% of women in the U.S. still drink while pregnant. For scientists, it has been difficult to predict which characteristics in mothers are more likely to lead to the presence or severity of fetal alcohol spectrum disorders (FASD) in their children if they choose to drink during their pregnancies, other than their pattern of alcohol consumption. Now, a new study by researchers at Detroit’s Wayne State University and their affiliates has revealed one specific characteristic—maternal age—compounds the propensity of FASD in children born to alcoholic mothers. Older women who engage in alcohol use during pregnancy have a greater risk of FASD births than their younger counterparts.

Lead researcher Lisa Chiodo, Ph.D, and her team performed a long-term cohort study by examining the varying levels of attention in 462 children (231 male and 231 female) born to inner-city women who were known to have specific levels of alcohol consumption per day. The mothers were recruited during their pregnancies at an antenatal university clinic and were assessed on their age and levels of alcohol, nicotine, cocaine, marijuana, and opiate consumption throughout their pregnancies. The researchers specifically analyzed the mothers’ participation in binge drinking by assessing their absolute alcohol ounce intake per day of consumption. Later, when the children of these mothers reached the age of 7, researchers tested the children using the Continuous Performance Test and had their teachers complete the Achenbach Teacher Report Form as well.

When controlling other influential factors in their study, the researchers’ results showed that children of older alcoholic mothers (women age 30 and older) had more alcohol-related attention deficits than the children of younger alcoholic mothers (women age 29 and younger). Children born to older mothers who had a pattern of binge drinking during pregnancy were slower in their response time on their exams, yet still made more errors—an indication of neurobehavioral deficits. The heightened presence of attention problems in these children was the result of brain damage caused by prenatal alcohol exposure combined with the older age of their mothers. Children of older alcoholic mothers had more cognitive-behavioral deficits and physical anomalies than the children born to younger alcoholic mothers.

The researchers concluded that the greater presence of FASD in children born to older drinking mothers is consistent with other related studies. Although further investigation is needed to verify why older alcoholic mothers have more FASD births, the researchers cite that older mothers may have more experience with drinking, may have built up greater tolerances to alcohol’s effects, and/or may have accrued more health problems related to alcohol consumption than younger mothers. All of these potential reasons have the ability to cause higher levels of alcohol in the fetuses of these mothers. Furthermore, researchers mention that other contributing factors such as the mother’s metabolism/composition, body size, and number of pregnancies (all of which relate to maternal age) may also influence the likelihood of prenatal alcohol exposure in the fetus. Additionally, prior studies have found that women tend to consume alcohol with more frequency as they age—perhaps as an effect of greater tolerance or experience. Accordingly in Wayne State University’s latest study, researchers also discovered that the older mothers were more likely to consume alcohol more frequently during their pregnancies than the younger mothers. Whatever the cause of their greater tendency to drink, older alcoholic mothers were putting their fetuses at greater risk of FASD.

The researchers refer to their findings as evidence for specialized intervention and educational programs that target vulnerable women who may become pregnant. Also, more effective therapy and educational programs should be developed for children with FASD that involves repetition of information in a slower, steady format than those designed for children without FASD. FASD can affect any child born to women who engage in prenatal alcohol consumption. However, some women who drink have given birth to children unaffected by alcohol consumption, but this occurrence does not prevent FASD from affecting future pregnancies as the women age or the pregnancies of other drinking women. Clinically, younger children born to alcoholic mothers have higher levels of neurobehavioral and morphologic consequences than their older siblings. This result coincides with the researchers’ findings that children of older drinking mothers are at a heightened risk of FASD.

For more information on FASD, visit the Center for Disease Control and Prevention’s FASD Homepage at www.cdc.gov/ncbddd/fasd/index.html.