The walls of the body’s major artery—the aorta—are already thickened in babies born to mothers who are overweight or obese, according to a University of Sydney study published online in the Fetal and Neonatal Edition of Archives of Disease of Childhood.
The study found that, importantly, this arterial thickening, which is a sign of heart disease, is independent of the child’s weight at birth—a known risk factor for later heart disease and stroke.
The authors suggest it may explain how overweight or obese mothers may contribute to their children’s subsequent risk of heart disease and stroke in later life. They point out that up to 60 per cent of women of child bearing age in developed countries are overweight or obese.
Twenty three women, whose average age was 35, were included in the study when they were 16 weeks pregnant. A body mass index (BMI) of more than 25 kg/m2 was defined as overweight or obese, and BMI ranged from 17 to 42 among the women. The abdominal aorta, the section of the artery extending down to the belly, was scanned in each newborn within seven days of birth to find out the thickness of the internal walls—the intima and media. Thickening of this main artery is an indication of early atherosclerosis, the disease that leads to the majority of heart attacks and strokes, and is characterised by the development of plaques in the walls of the arteries.
Intima-media thickness ranged from 0.65 to 0.97 mm, and was associated with the mother’s weight. The higher a mother’s weight, the higher the baby’s intima-media thickness, irrespective of how much the baby weighed at birth. The difference in intima-media thickness between babies of overweight and normal weight mums was 0.06 mm.
According to study co-author, Dr Michael Skilton from the University’s Boden Institute of Obesity, Nutrition, Exercise and Eating Disorders, the earliest physical signs of atherosclerosis (early heart disease) are present in the abdominal aorta, and aortic intima-media thickness is considered the best non-invasive measure of structural health of the vasculature in children.