Children born to obese mothers are up to 57 percent more likely to develop cancer, according to new research.
The researchers, who analyzed more than 2 million births and 3,000 cancer cases in Pennsylvania, believe disruptions to insulin levels at crucial points in the fetus’s development could set in motion dangerous cell changes that lead to disease years down the line.
The connection is so strong, they said, that it should deter any expectant mothers from fast food and excess sugar, which could derail her insulin control.
‘Right now, we don’t know of many avoidable risk factors for childhood cancer,’ lead author Dr Shaina Stacy, an epidemiologist at the University of Pittsburgh, said.
‘My hope is that this study can be, in a way, empowering and also motivating for weight loss.’
Her team pored through birth and cancer registry records filed in the state of Pennsylvania between 2003 and 2016.
They found children born to severely obese mothers – with a BMI (body mass index) above 40 – had a 57 percent higher risk of leukemia before the age of five.
This reduces steadily as the mother’s BMI falls – meaning cutting down on burgers, cakes and chips during pregnancy may save a child’s life.
Dr Stacy said: ‘Our intent isn’t to shame women or make them feel guilty.
‘But instead, we are hoping these findings point to one more reason for weight loss.’
She said they are important, because there aren’t many known preventable risk factors for childhood cancer.
Dr Stacy said: ‘This is hopefully one avoidable risk factor, [and] it’s healthy for both the moms and the kids.’
What is more, weight and height were individually linked – suggesting babies of bigger or taller mothers are more prone.
The results, published in the American Journal of Epidemiology, were based on the pre pregnancy BMI in mothers and subsequent cancer diagnosis in their offspring.
They held after taking into account other known risk factors for childhood cancer, such as newborn size and maternal age.
The further analysis showed it was not simply larger women were giving birth to bigger infants or that heavier women tended to be older.
Instead, a mother’s size independently contributed to her child’s risk – which she herself can control.
The researchers don’t know why there is such a considerable association between maternal obesity and childhood cancer, but they have some theories.
Dr Stacy said: ‘We can speculate it could have something to do with disruptions in insulin levels in the mother’s body during fetal development, or that the mother’s DNA expression could be altered in some way and passed to her offspring.’
She added: ‘But we would need additional studies to glean why that might be the case.’
Crucially, not all levels of obesity carry the same risk. Among the obese women, higher BMI came with greater cancer prevalence in their children.
Dr Stacy said: ‘So, even small amounts of weight loss can translate to a real reduction in risk.’
Senior author Professor Jian-Min Yuan, co leader of a prevention program at UPMC Hillman Cancer Center, added: ‘We are dealing with an obesity epidemic in this country.
‘From a prevention point-of-view, maintaining a healthy weight is not only good for the mother, but also for the children, too.’