According to new research, being obese during pregnancy is detrimental to the lifelong health and function of a foetus’s heart. 

Researchers from the University of Colorado, US, have discovered a link between maternal obesity and an offspring’s risk of cardiac problems later in life due to the nutrients received while in utero. 

Female mice were fed a high-fat diet – equivalent to a human eating a burger, chips and a fizzy drink daily – until they developed obesity (measuring around 25% of their original body weight). Following this, the foetuses of the mice were studied while in the womb and up to 24 months after birth, analysing their genes, proteins and mitochondria. 

The study found that the heart is influenced by the nutrients it receives while growing in the uterus, altering how the organ metabolises carbohydrates and fats. Due to the nutrients found in the high-fat diet, the hearts developed a nutrient preference leaning toward fats and moving away from sugar

Observing the hearts of both female and male offspring found that they had grown larger than average, impairing the organ’s ability to function normally due to an increase in weight. While male offspring exhibited signs of cardiovascular impairment from the start, the females’ health became worse over time. Increased oestrogen levels present in the female mice may be responsible for the initial protection against cardiovascular dysfunction, with the resistance weakening as oestrogen levels decline with age.  

In humans, being obese can lead to the development of cardiovascular and metabolic conditions such as type 2 diabetes, heart disease and cancer. As well as making changes to your diet, keeping active through regular exercise is another way to help reduce weight and reduce the risk of developing health complications. 

Lead author of the study, Dr Owen Vaughan, said: “Our research indicates a mechanism linking maternal obesity with cardiometabolic illness in the next generation. This is important because obesity is increasing rapidly in the human population and affects almost one-third of women of childbearing age. By improving our understanding of the mechanisms involved, this research paves the way for treatments that could be used in early life to prevent later-life cardiometabolic illnesses, which are costly for health services and affect many people’s quality of life. 

“For example, we could offer more tailored advice on nutrition to mothers or children based on their body mass index or sex, or develop new drugs that target metabolism in the heart of the fetus.”

The findings of this study are published in The Journal of Physiology

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