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Health & Pregnancy

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Grief in Pregnancy May Trigger Obesity in Adulthood

Extreme stress even before conception can affect unborn child's weight, study suggests

WebMD News from HealthDay

By Dennis Thompson

HealthDay Reporter

FRIDAY, June 27, 2014 (HealthDay News) -- Unborn children of mothers exposed to severe stress are more likely than others to grow up overweight or obese, even if that stress occurred months before pregnancy, a new Danish study has found.

Children whose biological fathers died while they were in the womb were twice as likely to become obese as adults, because of the stress of bereavement on their mother, the study authors said.

But children also had an increased risk of adult overweight or obesity if their mothers experienced the death of a close relative up to six months prior to their conception.

A mother's response to stress apparently has long-term effects on the child she carries, said study senior author Carsten Obel, an associate professor of public health at Aarhus University in Aarhus, Denmark.

"That maternal stress can influence the development of the fetal stress system seems quite plausible," Obel said. "Cortisol -- the end product of the stress system -- influences the storage of fat, and if this system is programmed to more storage early in life this may very well be a factor in development of obesity."

The researchers based their findings on the medical records of nearly 120,000 Danish men born between 1976 and 1993 and subsequently examined for military service between 2006 and 2011.

To examine the effects of stress, they focused on men born to mothers who lost a close relative just before or during their pregnancy. Close relatives included their partner, another child, a sibling or the mother's parents.

"Our reactions to stress are dependent on personality and other factors, but losing a close relative is believed to be a stressful event to everyone," Obel said.

Young men whose mothers had been bereaved had different degrees of increased risk of overweight and obesity depending on the relationship of the relative to the mother, the researchers found.

Overall, men had a 15 percent higher risk of being overweight if their mothers experienced the death of a close relative in the months prior to conception. They had a 13 percent higher risk of being overweight if a close relative died while they were in the womb.

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