The propensity for diabetes and obesity can be manipulated in the womb, according to studies conducted by researchers at Harvard Medical School, reported Time magazine.
The studies found a woman’s weight gain during pregnancy could determine the risk of the child becoming overweight by age 3, which tends to persist into adolescence. Women who experienced excessive weight gain were more likely to produce children who grew into obese teenagers.
Scientists blame the prenatal environment, rather than shared eating habits or genetic predisposition alone, because a 2006 study published in the Journal of Pediatrics revealed a striking disparity between siblings when a child was born after the mother underwent a successful anti-obesity surgery. According to the study, researchers found that the children gestated by women following surgery “were 52 percent less likely to be obese than siblings born to the same mother when she was still heavy,” reported Time.
A similar 2009 study by the same group confirmed that natural weight loss had the same effect. “Children born after their mothers lost weight had lower birth weights and were three times less likely to become severely obese than their older brothers and sisters,” Time reported.
The same story may hold true for diabetes. According to the American Diabetes Association study on the Pima Indians since 1965, the overall rate of diabetes among the Pima Indians of the Gila River Reservation in Arizona, who suffer from the highest rate of Type 2 diabetes in the world, “remained stable over the past four decades, with a significant rise occurring only in the youth.”
The Pimas could potentially alter this deadly trend previously considered heredity.
“If we could intensively control diabetic women’s blood sugar during pregnancy, we could really bring down the number of children who go on to develop diabetes,” said Dana Dabelea, associate professor of epidemiology at the University of Colorado at Denver and part of the investigation team on fetal origins by the National Institutes of Health.
Daniel Benyshek, a medical anthropologist at the University of Nevada at Las Vegas, who has interviewed members of Arizona’s Native American tribes, finds that tribe members respond hopefully upon learning obesity and diabetes do not have to be the “genetic destiny” of their future generations.
“The idea that some simple changes made during pregnancy could reduce the offspring’s risk for diabetes fosters a much more hopeful and engaged response,” Benyshek told Time.