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Ageing begins in the womb

Monday March 7th, 2016

The ageing process begins in the womb – but giving the mother-to-be antioxidants during pregnancy could slow a child’s ageing process in adulthood.

Using rats to model pregnancy and foetal development, an international study led by the University of Cambridge, UK, discovered that offspring of mothers with lower levels of oxygen in the womb aged more quickly in adulthood.

The research, published in The FASEB Journal, describes how scientists measured the length of telomeres in blood vessels of adult laboratory rats born from two groups of mothers – one that was fed antioxidants during normal or complicated pregnancy and a second group that was not.

Adult rats born from mothers who had less oxygen during pregnancy had shorter telomeres than rats born from uncomplicated pregnancies. They also experienced problems with the inner lining of their blood vessels – signs that they had aged more quickly and were predisposed to developing heart disease earlier than normal.

However, when pregnant mothers in this group were given antioxidant supplements, the risk of their offspring developing heart disease was lowered.

Offspring born from uncomplicated pregnancies benefited from a maternal diet of antioxidants, having longer telomeres than those rats whose mothers did not receive the antioxidant supplements during pregnancy.

Professor Dino Giussani from the Department of Physiology Development & Neuroscience at the University of Cambridge, the study’s senior author, says: “Our study in rats suggests that the ageing clock begins ticking even before we are born and enter this world, which may surprise many people.

“We already know that our genes interact with environmental risk factors, such as smoking, obesity and lack of exercise to increase our risk of heart disease, but here we’ve shown that the environment we’re exposed to in the womb may be just as, if not more, important in programming a risk of adult-onset cardiovascular disease.”

Professor Jeremy Pearson, associate medical director at the British Heart Foundation, which funded the study, added: “Previous research funded by the BHF has shown that sub-optimal conditions within the mother’s womb can lead to an increased risk of cardiovascular disease in later life.

“However, the mechanisms involved are poorly understood. Although conducted in rats, this research emphasises the need for pregnant mothers to maintain a healthy lifestyle for the sake of their baby’s future heart health.”

Allison, BJ et al. Divergence of mechanistic pathways mediating cardiovascular aging and developmental programming of cardiovascular disease. FASEB 1 March 2016; doi: 10.1096/fj.201500057

Tags: Childbirth and Pregnancy | Heart Health | UK News | Women's Health & Gynaecology

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