Ageing begins in the womb according to study we funded

3 March 2016        

Black and white sonogram of a baby in the womb

We begin to age before we are even born, according to an international study we funded at the University of Cambridge. This premature ageing could put babies in the womb at greater risk of heart disease in adulthood.

The study, in rats, was looking at pregnancy and how the foetus develops. It was published in the FASEB Journal. The offspring of rats whose mothers had lower levels of oxygen in the womb, aged quicker in adulthood. People who suffer pre-eclampsia, live at high altitude, or smoke during pregnancy can have lower oxygen levels in the womb.

Quitting smoking is the single best thing you can do for your heart health. 9 March 2016 is No Smoking Day. If you smoke but want to give up, be proud to be a quitter and make 9 March the day you start to stop.The researchers also found that antioxidants given to mothers during pregnancy can mean their offspring age slower in adulthood, reducing the risk of heart disease.

How did they make this discovery?

The Cambridge team were studying the telomeres in blood vessels of adult rats born from mothers which were either fed antioxidants or not fed them. These rats either underwent a normal pregnancy or a complicated one, where there was less oxygen in the womb.

Measuring the length of telomeres is a way to measure ageing – they get shorter and shorter as we age. Telomeres are found at the ends of the chromosomes, which carry our genetic information, and are meant to protect the chromosome and prevent it from deteriorating over time.

To simulate the complications that cause low oxygen in the womb in people, a group of the rats were kept in conditions with 7 per cent less oxygen than normal.

Animal research is helping us fight heart disease. Find out more about why we fund research in animals.

What was the effect of a complicated pregnancy?

The adult animals born from mothers with low oxygen in their wombs had shorter telomeres than rats born from a normal pregnancy. These rats also had problems with the inner lining of their blood vessels. This is another sign of ageing and shows an increased risk of developing heart disease earlier.

However, the researchers found that the risks associated with this premature ageing could be reduced if the pregnant mothers in lower oxygen conditions were given antioxidant supplements. They even found that the offspring born from mothers in normal oxygen conditions benefited from the antioxidant supplements.

Antioxidants are natural chemicals that are thought to protect against harmful substances called free radicals. They are found in fruit and vegetables like berries, tomatoes and beetroot.

What do the findings mean?

Professor Dino Giussani from the Department of Physiology Development & Neuroscience at the University of Cambridge, who led the research, said: "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."

Our Associate Medical Director, Professor Jeremy Pearson, said: "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."

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