The children of women with heart-healthy lifestyles live nearly a decade longer without cardiovascular disease than those whose mothers have unhealthy lifestyles, according to new research.
Previous studies have shown that parents pass on health to their offspring through genes and shared environment and lifestyle, but this is the first, the researchers say, to specifically examine the influence of heart health, looking at each parent separately.
“Our study suggests that mothers are the primary gatekeepers of their children’s health,” says co-author James Muchira from Vanderbilt University and the University of Massachusetts, US. “This maternal influence persists into the adulthood of their offspring.”
As such, Muchira and his colleagues suggest, optimising cardiovascular health among women of reproductive age and mothers with young children has the potential to break the intergenerational cycle of preventable cardiovascular disease.
The study involved 1989 offspring-mother-father trios. Offspring were enrolled at an average age of 32 and followed for 46 years (1971-2017).
“Crucially, the study followed offspring into most of their adult life when heart attacks and strokes actually occur,” Muchira says.
Cardiovascular health of parents was rated according to seven factors: not smoking, healthy diet, physically active, normal body mass index, blood pressure, blood cholesterol and blood glucose. Links were assessed for all pair combinations: mother-daughter, mother-son, father-daughter and father-son.
Fathers’ heart health was found not to have a statistically significant effect on the length of time offspring lived without cardiovascular disease. For mothers, however, poor cardiovascular health was linked with twice the hazard of early-onset cardiovascular disease.
Offspring of mothers with ideal cardiovascular health lived nine more years free of cardiovascular disease than offspring of mothers with poor cardiovascular health (27 versus 18 years).
Muchira says this is likely a combination of health status during pregnancy and environment in early life. “If mothers have diabetes or hypertension during pregnancy, those risk factors get imprinted in their children at a very early age. In addition, women are often the primary caregivers and the main role model for behaviours.”
Sons were more affected than daughters, largely because they tend to have more unfavourable lifestyle habits than daughters.
The upside, Muchira says, is that the findings show that individuals can take charge of their own health. “People who inherit a high risk from their mother can reduce that risk by exercising and eating well. If they don’t, the risk will be multiplied.”
The findings are published in the European Journal of Preventive Cardiology.
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