The quality of an expectant mother’s diet could be more crucial to the life span of her unborn child than previously thought. New research shows that a baby from an undernourished mother is more likely to suffer early heart aging than the child of a well-nourished parent.
The study, published in The Journal of Physiology, examined the relationship between the food intake of pregnant baboons and the heart health of their offspring. Dr. Geoffrey Clarke at the University of Texas Health Science Center at San Antonio and Dr. Peter Nathanielsz at the University of Wyoming led the study. They found when a mother’s food intake was reduced, it greatly impacted the aging rate of the offspring’s heart.
The baboon’s heart was selected for the study because it closely mirrored human development and aging. MRI scans compared the heart results of normally-fed baboons versus those male and female animals who ate 30 percent less. The offspring of the poorer fed baboons showed reduced heart function associated with age. By five years of life, which is equivalent to 20 human years, the structure of the heart was impaired.
Restricted dietary intake of fetuses can cause several organs, including the heart, to develop abnormally. Those challenges can lead to chronic illnesses later in life that include heart disease and stroke, which are disorders associated with aging. These negative heart changes can also lead to decreased quality of life, limited exercise capability and vulnerability to diseases like diabetes and hypertension.
“Women’s health during pregnancy is of fundamental importance to the lifetime health of their babies,” says Nathanielsz, who is also the director of the Wyoming Pregnancy and Life Course Health Center at the University of Wyoming. “Society must pay attention to improving women’s nutrition before and during pregnancy to prevent these adverse outcomes in babies.”
Understanding the importance of good maternal nutrition and the damage that a poor prenatal diet places on an unborn fetus could help with efforts of early prenatal care intervention. This research will help to protect the future heart health of babies both here in the U.S. and in developing nations.