A new study from the University of Pittsburgh recently showed that children were nearly 60% more likely to develop cancer if their mother was obese during pregnancy. The study looked at millions of birth records and thousands of cancer registry records and compared the two. The researchers are hoping this unique finding could become a tool for preventing incidences of childhood cancer.
The study was performed at the Graduate School of Public Health at the University of Pittsburgh. The correlation between obese mothers and childhood cancer was the strongest in early childhood.
How the Study Worked
The researchers started by using birth records from Pennsylvania. They then looked for any connection between the mother’s body mass index (BMI) from before they were pregnant and the child’s risk of getting cancer. The team then corrected the study for other risk factors such as maternal age. They still found that as a mother’s weight increased, so did their child’s chance of getting cancer early in their lives. All of these findings first appeared in the American Journal of Epidemiology online.
The leader of the study was Shaina Stacy, a postdoctoral scholar at the University of Pittsburgh specializing in epidemiology. She said the study is important because right now there are not many known risk factors that can be avoided for childhood cancer. She hopes the study will motivate women to lose weight and lead to an overall reduction in the number of childhood cancer cases.
The greatest number of cases in children were blood cancers like leukemia. After going through two million birth records, the team found that mothers with a BMI above 40, which is considered severely obese, gave birth to children that were 60% more likely to get these blood cancers. Height was also associated with an increased risk of leukemia.
Stacy said the most surprising part of the study was that a mother’s size was an independent factor that contributed to her child’s risk. This means that the child’s cancer risk wasn’t increased just because larger women were giving birth to larger babies, or just because larger women are usually older.
Right now, the researchers best guess as to why a mother’s BMI independently contributes to her offspring’s cancer risk is due to insulin levels in the blood. They think this increase in blood sugar during the development of the fetus might be increasing its own risk of blood cancer. It could also have something to do with the DNA that the mother is passing on.
Reducing Your Risk
The research team also thought it was important to note that different levels of obesity come with different levels of risk. As maternal weight increases, so does the child’s risk of cancer. Stacy says this means that any weight loss at all means a lesser risk for the child to have cancer. She hopes this inspires women to lose weight and reduce the number of childhood cancer cases. The research team called the obesity problem in this country “an epidemic.”