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How maternal obesity increases cancer risk in unborn children


Health & Fitness

How maternal obesity increases cancer risk in unborn children


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Summary

  • Obesity cases in Kenya are on the rise.
  • Statistics from the Ministry of Health (MoH) indicate that 27 percent of Kenyans are either overweight or obese.
  • But the percentage is slightly higher in women (38 percent) than men (17 percent).
  • For women of reproductive age, health experts caution that being obese predisposes them to certain health risks that aside from harming them, can also lead to long-term complications for the unborn child.

Mercy got married in 2020 and was planning to have a baby this year. But after consulting with her doctor, she was advised to wait much longer, until her body is in optimal health or condition before conceiving.

As a 39-year-old woman suffering from obesity and high blood pressure, Mercy’s doctor advised that it would be beneficial for her lose some calories and enjoy a healthy weight before becoming pregnant.

“I discussed it with my husband and we decided that it was best to follow the advice given and wait, so as to prevent complications that could affect me or the baby because of the obesity,” she states.

Mercy is now working with a nutrition and fitness expert to get guidance on healthy diets and exercises that will help with the weight loss.

Obesity cases in Kenya are on the rise. Statistics from the Ministry of Health (MoH) indicate that 27 percent of Kenyans are either overweight or obese. But the percentage is slightly higher in women (38 percent) than men (17 percent).

For women of reproductive age, health experts caution that being obese predisposes them to certain health risks that aside from harming them, can also lead to long-term complications for the unborn child.

Indeed, research shows that obesity increases the risk of pregnancy linked hypertension (preeclampsia) and diabetes, which are major causes of maternal deaths.

Obese mothers are also likely to have stillbirths, preterm or premature babies, children with birth defects or deliveries of babies that are larger than normal. All these adverse effects increase the health risks for the child.

Aside from these health problems, research studies are increasingly finding a link between maternal obesity and cancer risk among babies born to affected women.

A new study published in the Gut Journal indicates that infants born to obese pregnant women may have a heightened risk of developing colorectal cancer later in life.

The disease is a major contributor to the increasing cancer deaths in the country. It affects the colon and rectum, which are parts of the large intestine.

Common symptoms include blood in the stool, a change in bowel movements (diarrhoea, constipation or lump in the abdomen), unexplained weight loss and fatigue.

The new research, which was led by public health experts at the University of Texas Health Science Centre at Houston (UTHealth), state that maternal obesity and pregnancy weight gain may increase colorectal cancer risks among offspring of affected mothers in two different ways.

“First, these maternal characteristics increase risk of obesity in adult offspring. And obesity is a well-known risk factor of colorectal cancer. Second, they may affect the developing gastrointestinal tract in the womb, making offspring more sensitive to colorectal cancer later in life,” said Dr Caitlin Murphy, co-author of the study and an associate professor in the Department of Health Promotion and Behavioural Sciences at UTHealth School of Public Health.

During the study, the research team analysed data from women who were pregnant between 1959 and 1966. After delivery, the health of more than 18,000 of the offspring was tracked for 60 years, to determine which ones had developed colorectal cancer in adulthood through 2019.

In the end, the results of the study showed that adult children whose mothers were obese during pregnancy faced more than double the risk of developing colorectal cancer, compared with those of healthy weight or underweight mothers.

Timing of maternal weight gain was also associated with risk, regardless of a mother’s obesity, according to the study.

For mothers whose entire weight gain during pregnancy was below nine kilogrammes, having more weight gain early in pregnancy further increased the risk of colorectal cancer among their adult children.

Another determinant was birth weight. Based on the study, infants who weighed more than 4,000 grammes at birth had a greater chance of developing colorectal cancer as adults.

The researchers noted that the findings of the study come at a critical time – given the increasing prevalence of maternal obesity and pregnancy weight gain – amidst the growing cases of colorectal cancer globally.

Current projections indicate that the global burden of colorectal cancer is expected to increase by 60 percent to more than two million new diagnoses and a million deaths by 2030.

“Rates of colorectal cancer have increased rapidly in younger adults, but we know very little about what may explain this increase. These findings suggest that exposure in the womb is an important risk factor of colorectal cancer and may contribute to increasing rates of disease,” noted Dr Murphy.

Due to low awareness on underlying conditions like obesity that can have monumental effects on pregnancy, health experts advise women to undergo health check-ups or screening before conceiving because once pregnancy happens, it may be too late to avert some of the adverse complications.



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