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Kids are at higher risk of cancer when mothers are overweight

Researchers suggest many of these cases could be prevented

Photo (c) farland9 - Fotolia
Maintaining healthy habits is important for consumers’ of all ages, and the findings from a new study could help mothers give their children the best chance of doing just that.

According to researchers from the University of Pittsburgh, children are at a higher risk of developing cancer when their mothers are obese. 

“Right now, we don’t know of many avoidable risk factors for childhood cancer,” said researcher Shaina Stacy, PhD. “My hope is that this study can be, in a way, empowering and also motivating for weight loss.” 

How mothers play a role

To see how mothers’ weight affected the risk of their children later developing cancer, the researchers looked at Pennsylvania health records during a thirteen-year period starting in 2003 and ending in 2016. 

After evaluating roughly 3,000 cancer cases and two million birth records in the state of Pennsylvania, the researchers determined that mothers’ weight, independent of any other factors, can affect children’s likelihood of developing cancer. 

Children were nearly 60 percent more likely to be diagnosed with leukemia before turning five when their mothers had a body mass index (BMI) score over 40. 

Individual BMIs did play a role. The researchers found that children had a higher chance of developing cancer if their mother’s BMI was higher. Conversely, mothers with lower BMI scores had a reduced risk of having children that developed the disease. This was promising to the researchers, as it indicated that even small changes in weight can be beneficial to children’s health. 

The researchers explained that heavier birth weight or birth height didn’t play a role in the likelihood of a cancer diagnosis. Instead, they hypothesized that being heavier affects the way the body processes insulin, a process that also changes during pregnancy, and could ultimately affect newborns into childhood. 

Moving forward, the researchers hope that these findings can serve as a viable prevention tool, and ultimately reduce the number of childhood cancer diagnoses. 

“We are dealing with an obesity epidemic in this country,” said researcher Dr. Jian-Min Yuan. “From a prevention point-of-view, maintaining a healthy weight is not only good for the mother, but also for the children, too.” 

Mothers set the standard

This isn’t the first study to explore how mothers’ habits affect their children’s health. Researchers have found that children are likely to be healthier (after birth), or not, depending on their mothers’ lifestyles -- not their fathers’. 

The study revealed that when mothers choose healthier options or lose weight, their children typically follow suit, though the same pattern didn’t emerge with their fathers. Ultimately, the study showed that mothers’ habits translate to their children, whether for better or for worse. 

“Parents have a major impact on their children’s health and lifestyle,” said researcher Marit Næss. “Behaviors that lead to obesity are easily transferred from parent to child.”

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