ShareThis Page

Study: Children of obese moms face later risks

| Sunday, Aug. 18, 2013, 5:42 p.m.

Middle-aged adults whose mothers were obese or overweight in pregnancy have increased risks for developing serious cardiovascular problems and dying young, a study shows.

The study, based on the health records of more than 37,000 people born in Scotland between 1950 and 1976, does not explain why a mother's weight would affect the health of an adult child decades later. Genes and upbringing may play roles. Still, the results add to growing evidence that adverse conditions in the womb might have profound effects long after birth, according to the study, published in the British medical journal BMJ.

“It's very difficult to tease out” causes and effects when it comes to intergenerational health problems, says lead researcher Rebecca Reynolds, professor of metabolic medicine at the University of Edinburgh. Yet she says the results lend credence to a theory that “overnourished” fetuses may develop differences in their brains, blood vessels, hearts or metabolisms that make it more likely for them to become obese, unhealthy or both.

The study focused on adults ages 34 to 61 and linked their records with those from their mothers' first prenatal doctor visits. After accounting for socioeconomic status, mothers' ages and other differences, researchers found that those born to obese women were 35 percent more likely to die, for any reason, and 29 percent more likely to be hospitalized for heart attacks, strokes or other cardiovascular problems, compared with adults with normal-weight mothers. Cardiovascular diseases and cancer were the most common causes of death.

More modest increases in illness and death were noted among the grown children of women who were overweight but not obese.

The researchers defined overweight and obese by body mass index (BMI), a measure that takes weight and height into account. Mothers were considered obese if their BMIs were 30 or higher and overweight if their BMIs were between 25 and 29. It's not known whether the adults who got sick or died shared their mothers' weight problems. The study did show that the results held up whether or not babies were born heavy, Reynolds said.

The study “is certainly intriguing,” though it lacks crucial information “on what happens between birth and midlife” in homes where children are raised by overweight and obese mothers, says Pam Factor-Litvak, an associate professor of epidemiology at Columbia University. It also lacks information on fathers, she notes. Genes, shared diets and other factors need to be studied, she says.

But the suggestion that the womb environment sets the stage for later-life cardiovascular health and mortality is important to pursue, she says in an accompanying editorial.

In any case, there already are many good reasons for women to enter pregnancy at healthy weights and not to gain too much during the pregnancy, says Jeanne Conry, president of the American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists. It recommends women talk with their doctors about weight at every check-up, before and between pregnancies. Women who start a pregnancy obese have an increased risk of developing diabetes and high blood pressure, having a Cesarean section and having a baby with birth defects, she says.

The issue is pressing, she says, because obesity among pregnant women has risen 70 percent in just the past decade in the nation.

Reynolds notes that just 4 percent of the moms in her study were obese but that 35 percent of reproductive-age U.S. women are obese and that rates are similar in Europe.

TribLIVE commenting policy

You are solely responsible for your comments and by using you agree to our Terms of Service.

We moderate comments. Our goal is to provide substantive commentary for a general readership. By screening submissions, we provide a space where readers can share intelligent and informed commentary that enhances the quality of our news and information.

While most comments will be posted if they are on-topic and not abusive, moderating decisions are subjective. We will make them as carefully and consistently as we can. Because of the volume of reader comments, we cannot review individual moderation decisions with readers.

We value thoughtful comments representing a range of views that make their point quickly and politely. We make an effort to protect discussions from repeated comments either by the same reader or different readers

We follow the same standards for taste as the daily newspaper. A few things we won't tolerate: personal attacks, obscenity, vulgarity, profanity (including expletives and letters followed by dashes), commercial promotion, impersonations, incoherence, proselytizing and SHOUTING. Don't include URLs to Web sites.

We do not edit comments. They are either approved or deleted. We reserve the right to edit a comment that is quoted or excerpted in an article. In this case, we may fix spelling and punctuation.

We welcome strong opinions and criticism of our work, but we don't want comments to become bogged down with discussions of our policies and we will moderate accordingly.

We appreciate it when readers and people quoted in articles or blog posts point out errors of fact or emphasis and will investigate all assertions. But these suggestions should be sent via e-mail. To avoid distracting other readers, we won't publish comments that suggest a correction. Instead, corrections will be made in a blog post or in an article.