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According to the CDC, 70.7% of the US population is overweight or obese (BMI>30), with 37.9% being obese. Obesity related health expenses accounted for an estimated $147 billion in healthcare spending in 2008 alone. The dire health consequences for obese individuals include higher incidence of high blood pressure, type 2 diabetes and coronary heart disease to name a few on top of overall decrease in quality of life.

A recent study from Dr. Edwina H Yeung and colleagues highlights that these are not the only costs associated with obesity. When a child had two parents who were obese, they had a significantly higher chance of failing multiple early childhood developmental domains including fine motor, personal-social functioning and problem-solving ability relative to children of normal BMI parents (BMI<25). This is the first work to consider the impact of both maternal and paternal BMI on childhood development in the US where there have been studies focusing on maternal contribution. This is also the first work to detail the specific domains of developmental delays conveyed by obesity from either or both parents.

Lauren Robertson, a doctoral candidate at HSPH, believes that “this work needs to be validated in more patient populations” since the cohort was quite specific, “primarily white, highly educated, parents receiving infertility treatment”. Performing this study with different experimental populations with “socioeconomic, racial, geographic and educational diversity” would “allow us to confirm the generalizability of these findings to obesity and child development amongst a diverse population”. Concerning the importance of the methodology used in this study along with the clinical implications, Robertson says “these were all determined from use of the [Ages & Stages Questionnaires (ASQ)], which may serve as a valuable clinical screening instrument measuring childhood development in at-risk children of obese parents. Importantly, the ASQ has already been shown to be clinically useful for the general population, as acknowledged by the authors, which increases the importance and potential application of this study to the clinic.”

This study does not go into details concerning the mechanism as to why the children failed the developmental tests. Epigenetics, anything that modifies gene expression but does not directly modify the organism’s DNA, seem to be one of the front runners of how environmental conditions can can influence transgenerational inheritance. A study done in mice looking at the disruption of a specific epigenetic modification in sperm lead to drastic impacts to offspring for multiple generations (Siklenka K et al. Science Vol 350 Issue 6261).

This work indicates that there are many factors which can affect the development of children including the health of both parents, further studies will be needed to validate these findings. If more studies replicate this data, the BMI of the parents could play a role in risk assessment for the impending child.

I would like to thank Lauren Robertson for her valuable input on this work.

Lauren Robertson is a doctoral candidate in Dr. Gokhan Hotamisligil’s laboratory at the T.H. Chan School of Public Health, studying the molecular mechanisms and therapeutic application of targeting a fatty acid protein for treatment of metabolic and infectious diseases.

Managing Correspondent: Aaron Aker

News articles:
Parental obesity linked to delays in child development (ScienceDaily)
Parental obesity linked to delays in child development, NIH study suggests (EurekaAlert)

Journal article:
Parental Obesity and Early Childhood Development (Yeung et al., Pediatrics 2017)

One thought on “Parental weight and its impact on early childhood development

  1. What happens in early childhood can matter for a lifetime. To successfully manage our society’s future, we must recognize problems and address them before they get worse. In early childhood, research on the biology of stress shows how major adversity, such as extreme poverty, abuse, or neglect can weaken developing brain architecture and permanently set the body’s stress response system on high alert. Science also shows that providing stable, responsive, nurturing relationships in the earliest years of life can prevent or even reverse the damaging effects of early life stress, with lifelong benefits for learning, behavior, and health.

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