BABIES of overweight or obese mothers are born with prematurely thickened arteries, which can lead to strokes and heart disease in later life, a study has found.
The study, published online in the Fetal and Neonatal Edition of Archives of Disease of Childhood, found that the walls of the babies’ aorta, the body’s major artery, were thicker than those of babies born to mothers of normal weight.
Arterial thickening is an indication of heart disease, and occurs when fatty deposits, such as cholesterol, build up in the arterial wall, restricting blood flow to the rest of the body.
Scientists found that the thickening of the babies’ arteries was independent of the child’s weight at birth, and suggests overweight mothers are boosting their children’s subsequent risk of cardiovascular disease.
The British Heart Foundation (BHF) is now calling for more research to confirm any link between obese mothers and babies with early signs of heart disease.
Amy Thompson, senior cardiac nurse at BHF, said: “These results could suggest a direct link between a mother’s weight during pregnancy and her child’s risk of cardiovascular disease.
“We know that obesity during pregnancy can cause a number of problems for both the mother and their unborn baby.”
Twenty-three women, whose average age was 35, were observed in the study when they were 16 weeks pregnant in Melbourne, Australia.
During the study, the abdominal aorta, which is the section of the artery extending down to the stomach, was scanned in each newborn within seven days of birth to determine the thickness of the two innermost walls: the intima and media.
Intima-media thickness ranged from 0.65mm to 0.97mm, and was closely linked with the mother’s weight. The higher the mother’s weight, the greater the baby’s intima-media thickness, irrespective of how much the baby weighed at birth.
Study author Dr Michael Skilton warned how babies born to heavier mothers run a greater risk of atherosclerosis – a condition that sees arteries narrow and harden due to an excessive build-up of plaque around the artery wall.
He said: “The earliest physical signs of atherosclerosis are present in the abdominal aorta, and aortic thickness is considered the best non-invasive measure of the body’s vascular system.
“This may also explain how a mum being overweight might affect her child’s subsequent risk of heart disease and stroke in later life.”
However, Ms Thompson emphasised that more research, on a larger scale, would be needed to establish any firm links between the mother and child’s weights and health.
She added: “Since the babies were only examined at one week old, we don’t know what these findings may mean for their heart health as their life continues.
“Additionally, some of the mothers studied were smokers, and some developed high blood pressure or diabetes during pregnancy, which may have played a role in the results.”
Scotland holds the third highest obesity record in the developed world, behind only Mexico and the United States, according to a report by the Association for the Study of Obesity last year.
Over the past 15 years, obesity across Scotland has risen from 17 per cent of adults aged 16-64 in 1995 to 27 per cent in 2010.
Maternal obesity can also have an adverse effect on birth weight which, in turn, may affect risk of obesity later in life, and infants who gain weight rapidly in the first two years of life are more likely to be overweight later in childhood, according to NHS Scotland.
The risk of developing type-2 diabetes, coronary heart disease and some cancers is significantly increased in overweight and obese adults.