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Could being born to an obese mother increase your risk of Alzheimer’s Disease?

Figures suggest that 1 in 3 of those born* each year in the UK will develop Alzheimer’s Disease (AD) in their lifetime. The root causes of AD are not fully understood, however, scientists at The Open University (OU) are researching the link between this degenerative disease and those born to obese mothers. Senior Lecturer in Health Sciences, Dr Cheryl Hawkes, explains.

Understanding the early life factors that contribute to Alzheimer’s Disease

Since 1948, the Framingham Heart Study (FHS) has been collecting clinical data from three generations of participants. The original goal of the study was to identify the factors that contribute to heart disease by following a large group of participants over a long period of time and determining who did and did not develop heart disease or stroke. Along the way, the study also collected other data, such as brain volume and performance on cognitive tasks. Thanks to funding of almost £50,000 from Alzheimer’s Research UK, Dr Hawkes is currently using the datasets from FHS to investigate if there is a link between maternal obesity and the risk of developing AD in their aged children.  She said:

“There is increasing data suggesting that the prenatal and early life environment has long term impacts on health, but no one has investigated this in terms of age-related neurodegenerative diseases like AD.”

“We could prevent or reduce the development of the Disease”

Dr Hawkes has previously studied this relationship using a mouse model of AD, and found that offspring born to mothers consuming a high fat diet during pregnancy and lactation have more AD-like traits in old age compared to offspring born to mothers fed a low fat diet. The current project expands on this work by examining whether the findings also apply to humans:

“If there is a relationship between cognitive function and maternal obesity in the aged offspring, this will provide a revolutionary understanding of when AD ‘starts’. It also has the potential for helping to identify the individuals ‘at risk’ that can be targeted for new interventional or treatment strategies, which could prevent or reduce the development of AD,” Dr Hawkes added.

Read more about the research on our Faculty of Science, Technology, Engineering, and Maths (STEM) website.


*Lewis, F: Estimation of future cases of dementia from those born in 2015 (July 2015); Consultation report for Alzheimer’s Research UK

About Author

Christine works in the Media Relations team within the Communications Unit at The Open University. She is an experienced BBC journalist, sub-editor and news editor and has a background in regional newspapers. After moving to PR she worked as a press officer for the Zoological Society of London. She has a BSc in Social Sciences with Politics from The Open University and focuses on stories from the Faculty of Social Science and widening access in HE. Chris swims regularly and has a pet Tortoise called Lightning.

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