Moms: Want to Look Great in Old Age? Stop at Two Children

Women may want to stop at only two children if they want to preserve their looks in older age. YASUYOSHI CHIBA/AFP/Getty Images

Motherhood may have a bigger effect on a woman's looks than we previously thought. New research found that women who've had two children or fewer are judged by others as being more attractive than women with bigger families. Although it's still not clear why women who have had more children appear older and less attractive, the study suggests it may be due to the stress that motherhood can have on a woman's body.

For the study, published online in the American Journal of Anthropology, researchers gathered images of post-menopausal women, with different numbers of children. Rather than use the original images, the researchers used computer software to create "average" faces based on the images to reduce biases. The women were split into three groups, those who had one to two children, those who had four to five children and those with seven to nine. The team then had 571 volunteers, made up of both men and women, judge the faces' attractiveness, youthfulness, and how healthy the faces appeared.

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Results showed time and again the faces of women who had only one to two children were perceived as more youthful, healthy and more attractive than faces of women who had more children, despite these women being of similar age. In addition, women who had the most children (seven to nine) were consistently marked as looking older, less healthy and less attractive.

The true reason for this association between having more children and appearing older, less attractive and less healthy in middle age is not clear, but the study suggests it may be related to the oxidative stress of carrying and delivering a child.

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In scientific terms, free radicals are molecules inside the body that have unpaired electrons. This makes them dangerous and likely to cause bodily damage to other cells and our DNA. Free radicals are created through a number of activities and behavior, such as smoking cigarettes, drinking alcohol and even pregnancy, Stanford University reported. A 2003 study suggested that the placenta is actually an ideal environment for the production of free radicals due to its high number of mitochondria and abundance of transitional metals, such as iron.

Our body has a natural way to reduce the number of free radicals. Molecules called antioxidants help to destroy the number of free radicals in our body. According to News Medical, oxidative stress occurs when there is an imbalance between the production of free radicals and the ability of the body to counteract their effects. A 2003 report suggested that although there is oxidative stress throughout a pregnancy, it peaks during the second trimester of pregnancy.

According to the research, this oxidative stress of multiple pregnancies may explain why women with more than two children appear to age faster in older age.

This research adds to a study from 2016 which measured the number of molecules in women's blood associated with oxidative stress. This study found that women who had more pregnancies had more of these molecules. This new study suggests that the stress of pregnancies may be detectable even without taking a blood test.

Of course, the research is not suggesting how women plan their families, and merely gives insights into some of the previously unrecognized effects of pregnancy and childbirth. In addition, it's still not clear if it was the stress of pregnancy or merely the stress of having to raise yet another young one that cause premature aging on the mothers' faces.