Recently, the UK government rolled out its Childhood Obesity strategy. It was a long time coming and for a short while after Brexit, there was even talk of shelving it altogether.
Now it turns out that it’s not just young children and teenagers who are affected by the growing obesity epidemic, but also unborn babies.
A generation of ‘old babies’
Telomeres are protective structures at the end of chromosomes and their length decreases with age, leaving DNA more vulnerable to damage when cells divide. Since telomeres can be shortened prematurely as a result of unhealthy diets and lifestyle, their length is often used to measure the “biological age” of an individual.
A recent study published in the journal BMC Medicine, examined blood samples from 743 mothers and their babies. The researchers found a link between weight of the mothers during pregnancy and the length of the babies’ telomeres.
For each one-point increase in the mothers’ body mass index (BMI), the babies’ telomeres were 50 DNA base pairs shorter, which is the equivalent to what people lose in one and a half years of adult life. The researchers also took into account parents’ age, social class and habits such as smoking, before finalising their results.
Based on these results they concluded that new-borns from obese mothers compared with new-borns from normal weight mothers were biologically approximately 12 to 17 years older, based on telomeric year equivalence in adulthood.
Commenting on these results, lead researcher Tim Nawrot of the Hasselt University in Belgium, said: “Compared with new-borns of mothers with a normal BMI, new-borns of women with obesity are older on a molecular level, because shortened telomere lengths mean that their cells have shorter lifespans. So maintaining a healthy BMI during a woman’s reproductive age may promote molecular longevity in offspring.”
Previous studies have also found that people with shorter telomeres have a higher risk of diabetes, heart disease and dying earlier.
Professor Neena Modi, president of the Royal College of Paediatrics and Child Health, said: “This intriguing study provides further evidence of the lifelong impact of maternal obesity on a child’s life.” She added that the study underpins the fact that babies born to obese mothers may be at greater risk of chronic diseases in adult life.
The growing obesity crisis in the UK has recently been highlighted by the UK’s Chief Medical Officer, Dame Sally Davies. She said that being fat is increasingly seen as normal and her research shows that half of overweight men and a third of overweight women think they are “about the right weight”.
In addition, according to research conducted by one of the UK’s leading private medical insurance providers, Aviva UK Health, only 9 per cent of parents think their child has a weight problem, well below the 31 per cent who actually do.
That means 2.4 million overweight children have parents who do not see their weight problem and as a result are doing nothing about it.
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Babies of obese mothers are born ‘older’, published online, 18.10.2016, thetimes.co.uk