It has long been known that obesity impairs metabolism and predisposes to diabetes and heart disease. New research shows that the effects of maternal obesity even pass across generations to offspring, accelerating the rate of aging of metabolic problems that occur in normal life.
Researchers with the University of Wyoming and the Salvador Zubiran National Institute of Medical Sciences and Nutrition, in Mexico City, studied offspring of obese rat mothers. They observed the offspring throughout their lives — puberty, early adult life, late adult life and early aging — to determine the rate at which they aged. Offspring of obese mothers had more body fat and showed early prediabetic signs such as an early rise in insulin resistance, increasing susceptibility to diabetes.
Offspring of the obese mothers showed impaired function of their mitochondria, the power stations of cells that generate the energy cells need to function properly. These changes make it more likely that organisms will develop heart disease.
The research — which was led in part by Peter Nathanielsz of UW’s Wyoming Pregnancy and Life Course Health Center — appears in the Journal of Physiology.
Interestingly, some of the unwanted outcomes resulting from maternal obesity were different in male and female offspring. The reason for this is not clear, but it is thought to be hormonal in nature. Encouragingly, exercise by the offspring improves many of the poor offspring outcomes that result from maternal obesity.
“These new findings add to the accumulating evidence for the influence of conditions in the womb and early life on the offspring’s health and susceptibility to diseases throughout life,” Nathanielsz says.
For example, earlier research by Nathanielsz and colleagues indicated that an obese pregnant mother and exposure to a high-fat, high-sugar diet during pregnancy produces a “fatty liver” in the fetus, potentially predisposing children to obesity, metabolic and cardiovascular disorders later in life. Another study found that the child of a slightly undernourished mother is more likely to suffer early aging of the heart.
The Journal of Physiology is a publication of the Physiological Society, which brings together over 4,000 scientists from over 60 countries. The society promotes physiology and supports physiologists by organizing world-class conferences and offering grants for research.