Maintaining a healthy body weight won’t just extend a woman’s lifespan, it may also extend the life of her unborn child. A new study has found that children of obese women have shorter telomere lengths on their DNA — a characteristic directly associated with the individual's lifespan.

The new study, now published in the online journal BMC Medicine, showed that newborns of obese women are older on a molecular level because they have shorter telomere lengths compared to newborns of mothers with a normal body mass index. The research found that for each one-point increase in the mothers' BMI, telomeres in the babies were about 50 base pairs shorter. This translates to losing about 1.1 to 1.6 years of life, the study concluded.

According to study author Tim Nawrot in a recent statement, the finding highlights that “maintaining a healthy BMI during a woman's reproductive age may promote molecular longevity in the offspring."

Every day, our body creates new cells through cell division. As cells divide, our chromosomes are in danger of degrading, but telomeres are structures at the end of the chromosome which prevent this from happening. In addition to keeping our chromosomes intact, telomeres are also associated with lifespan; the more times a person is able to successfully create new cells, the longer they are able to live.

For the study, the team looked at BMI and telomere length of 743 mothers (aged 17-44) and their newborn babies. In addition to their BMI, the mothers also supplied researchers with information via a questionnaire on paternal age, socioeconomic status, smoking status, ethnicity, and pregnancy complications. To measure average telomere lengths, umbilical cord blood was drawn immediately after delivery from all 743 mother-newborn pairs.

The results add to a growing body of research showing certain health risks associated with obesity and increased BMI. According to Nawrot, the findings are particularly important for more wealthy societies where obesity is more prevalent, especially among women of reproductive age.

Source: Martens DS, Plusquin M, Gyselaers M, De Vivi I, Nawrot T. Maternal pre-pregnancy body mass index and newborn telomere length. BMC Medicine. 2016

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