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Rutgers study finds children born to mothers with diabetes during pregnancy may age faster biologically

Stephanie Shiau, an instructor in the Department of Biostatistics and Epidemiology and lead author of the study, said there is currently no known way to avoid accelerated aging in children born to mothers with gestational diabetes.  – Photo by Courtesy of Michelle Edelstein

A recent study conducted by Rutgers researchers found that children born to mothers who had diabetes during pregnancy may age faster biologically and be at an increased risk for health issues, said Stephanie Shiau, an instructor in the Department of Biostatistics and Epidemiology and lead author of the study.

They investigated the relationship between prenatal gestational diabetes mellitus (GDM) exposure and offspring DNA methylation in children between the ages three and 10 years, according to the study.

“(GDM) is a condition in which a hormone made by the placenta prevents the body from using insulin effectively,” according to an article by Johns Hopkins Medicine. “Glucose builds up in the blood instead of being absorbed by the cells.”

Shiau said the study included 578 GDM and 578 non-GDM mother-child pairs and took place in Tianjin, China. The baseline visit of the study occurred between 2009 and 2011, she said. 

“We measured epigenetic age using an assay in (the) blood to see how epigenetic age differed from actual age,” Shiau said.

Epigenetic age is an estimate of biological age based on changes in DNA methylation at specific locations along the genome, according to the National Institute on Aging (NIA). The difference between someone’s epigenetic and chronological age can predict their risk of mortality, independent of known mortality risk factors.

“We looked to see if the difference was different between children ages three (and) 10 years born to mothers with gestational diabetes and children born to mothers without gestational diabetes,” Shiau said. “Accelerated aging was determined by measuring a marker of epigenetic age and seeing how it differed from (the) actual age.”

The results of the study found that this epigenetic age was higher in the group of children born to mothers with GDM, Shiau said. This finding led to revelations regarding other health issues as well, she said. 

“We also found that a higher offspring epigenetic age was associated with higher weight/BMI/body fat percentage and blood pressure,” she said. 

Shiau said the results of this study are significant because they suggest that gestational diabetes could have long-term effects on epigenetic aging in offspring, as well as leading to worse cardiometabolic health outcomes.

Shiau said there have been other studies linking GDM to accelerated aging.

“Prior reports have linked GDM exposure to shortened telomere length, a clinical biomarker of aging, in offspring in childhood,” she said.

The NIA also analyzed recent studies regarding epigenetic aging and the health risks associated with it. 

“(Approximately five percent) of adults aged substantially faster than others (i.e., epigenetic age was more than 10 years older than chronological age), leading to a nearly 50 percent increased risk of death,” according to the NIA.

Shiau said that a way to avoid accelerated aging in children born to mothers with gestational diabetes is currently not known and further studies have to be conducted to learn more about this relationship.

“The findings support the need for further studies using longitudinal samples to evaluate the association between epigenetic age and later onset of adult metabolic diseases,” Shiau said. 

While more research is needed to better understand this process, additional research is looking to identify biomarkers to help describe the various aspects of biological age, according to the NIA.


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