The effects of age on stillbirth

Our researchers want to find out more about why the placentas of older women do not work as well as they should so that we can develop new treatments to help prevent stillbirth.
  • Authors list

    Dr Rebecca Jones, Dr Samantha Lean, Dr Mark Dilworth, Professor Alexander Heazell

Start: September 2013

End: August 2018

Women who get pregnant when they are older are more likely to give birth to babies that are too small  or stillborn. This is because their placentas do not work as well as they should and so it is more difficult for the baby to get the oxygen and nutrients it needs.

We have already found that the placentas of older women age faster than those of younger women and that the cells in the placentas of women over 40 are under more stress – they are less able to repair damage and show signs of inflammation.

Is age-related stillbirth due to changes in metabolism or older eggs

We now want to find out whether these changes are due to women’s eggs being older at conception or because of age-related changes to the mother’s metabolism and blood vessels.

To do this, we will implant embryos from younger mice into older mice and embryos from older mice into younger mice. We will look at pregnancy outcomes, as well as characteristics of the placenta, to find out whether we see age-related changes. We will also find out if the placenta works less effectively when the father is older, by comparing outcomes with embryos from old males and young females with those from young males and young females.

As part of this research, we want to find treatments that can help the placentas of older women work more effectively.

One approach could be to use melatonin – a hormone that normally plays a part in controlling our sleep pattern. So far, we have found that melatonin treatment reduces the likelihood of older mice having stillbirths or pups that do not grow properly, although we don’t think this is due to an improvement in how the placenta is transferring nutrients to the pups.

Another approach could be to give taurine  – an amino acid that is not transferred across the placenta as well in older mice – and we will now investigate whether this can improve pregnancy outcomes in these mice.

We believe that this research will help us to understand more about how maternal and paternal aging contributes to the risk of stillbirth so that we can develop treatments to help keep babies alive.

The terrible effect of stillbirth

Stillbirth is devastating for families. We have been gathering testimony about the terrible effect of stillbirth on parents and wider family to raise awareness and make the case that more must be done to bring down the statistics.

'We sat on the bed laughing and joking, pushing the worry away. The midwife seemed to be away for ages. When she returned we were taken to a scan room to be scanned. As we walked in the room I knew something wasn’t right as there were three people in the room already. I nervously lay on the bed and after a few minutes the doctor turned to me and said, ‘I’m sorry but there’s no heartbeat.’

'Those words still make me feel sick to my stomach. I just remember screaming and screaming. I looked to David who sat with his head in his hands. I eventually managed to stop screaming and sat and cried uncontrollably. How could this have happened?'

Shelley, whose baby Joseph was stillborn at 37 weeks

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