A pregnant woman’s diet and other lifestyle factors can change how her baby’s genes work in ways that can affect a child’s cardiovascular health at age 8 or 9 , according to new research.
According to statistics from the American Heart Association, nearly half of American adults have some form of cardiovascular disease, including coronary artery disease, heart failure, stroke, and high blood pressure. Early intervention can reduce the risk. But it’s difficult to identify potential problems in children who might develop cardiovascular disease later in life.
To meet this challenge, scientists are looking at epigenetics – the study of how the environment and other exposures alter how a person’s genes work – to better predict future risk of heart disease.
One of the body’s epigenetic mechanisms for changing the function of genes, without changing the gene itself, is called DNA methylation. During this process, bundles of carbon and hydrogen atoms known as methyl groups attach themselves to part of a DNA strand. They act as a power switch to turn gene expression on or off, making genes more or less active in fulfilling their designated role. Maternal nutrition, smoking, stress, and other environmental factors can influence a child’s DNA methylation even before birth.
In the new study, published Monday in the journal AHA Hypertension, researchers at the University of Southampton in England analyzed 470 umbilical cord blood samples from participants in the Southampton Women’s Survey, which collects information on women’s health. before, during and after their pregnancy. They compared the DNA methylation patterns in the samples with measures of the cardiovascular health of children at ages 8 or 9. The researchers identified 16 sites where methylation altered the expression of genes associated with the speed of the aortic pulse wave. It is a measure of the stiffness of blood vessels, which can increase the risk of cardiovascular disease.
Next, the researchers looked at possible links between maternal factors and methylation patterns at the sites. Smoking during pregnancy, diet during pregnancy, and weight before and during pregnancy altered these patterns. Specifically, lower consumption of oily fish – such as salmon and mackerel – during pregnancy increased pulse wave speed during childhood.
“We were very interested to find that maternal consumption of fatty fish, both in early and late pregnancy, was linked to these epigenetic changes,” said Dr Mark Hanson, professor of cardiovascular science at the British Heart Foundation and Director of the Institute of Developmental Sciences at the University of Southampton. “Oily fish are a source of healthy polyunsaturated fatty acids which are important in the development of cell membranes, including in our blood vessels.”
The results suggest that the cardiovascular disease risk trajectory begins very early, even before we are born, Hanson said. But because the epigenetic process seems to play a role, “there is an opportunity to change that in various ways,” he said. “And if we want our children to have the longest, healthiest lives possible, then we need to help them develop in healthy ways, literally from the moment of conception.”
The researchers said that because the study included only white children, more research is needed to confirm whether the findings apply to children of other races and ethnicities. But, said Hanson, “there is no reason to believe that these findings would not apply to other groups.”
It is too early to draw definitive conclusions between these epigenetic changes and the actual heart health of children, said Dr Jennifer Van Eyk, director of the Advanced Clinical Biosystems Institute at Cedars-Sinai Medical Center in Los Angeles. She did not participate in the study.
“The most important finding is that they have correlated specific epigenetic signatures to key health outcomes, and the correlations can be important. But one must be extremely careful before linking them to the cause of the disease,” he said. said Van Eyk, also holder of the Erika J. Glazer Chair. in Women’s Heart Health in Cedars-Sinai.
The study hints at vast cellular changes that could have a long-term impact, she said, but there are still many steps between identifying patterns of DNA methylation and knowing their real influence on health risks. Epigenetic changes can have both positive and negative effects or have narrow or wide consequences, and scientists are just beginning to understand what they mean.
“It’s the tip of the iceberg, but it’s an exciting discovery,” said Van Eyk.
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