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Study: Kids Of Obese Mothers Have A Higher Risk Of Early Leukemia

Teresa Crawford
In this Aug. 7, 2018 photo, a doctor performs an ultrasound scan on a pregnant woman at a hospital in Chicago.

Children born to obese mothers are significantly more likely to develop cancer while they're young, according to new research from the University of Pittsburgh Graduate School of Public Health and UPMC Hillman Cancer Center.

The study found that cancer was more prevalent in the kids of mothers with a body mass index, or BMI, of 40 or higher -- defined by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention as the highest level of obesity. These children have a 57 percent higher risk of developing leukemia before the age of five compared to other kids.

The risk goes down steadily as the mother's BMI decreases.

"Our intent isn't to shame women or make them feel guilty," said lead author Shaina Stacy, a PhD postdoctoral scholar at Pitt and UPMC. "But instead, we're hoping that these findings point to one more reason for weight loss."

Stacy said these findings are important, because there aren't many known preventable risk factors for childhood cancer.

"This is hopefully one avoidable risk factor, [and] it's healthy for both the moms and the kids," she said.

The researchers looked at nearly two million births in Pennsylvania between 2003 and 2016, and in their analysis adjusted for known factors associated with increased risk of childhood cancer and leukemia so they wouldn’t impact the data.

Stacy said they don't know why there's such a considerable correlation between maternal obesity and childhood cancer, but she has some ideas.

"We can speculate that it could have something to do with disruptions in insulin levels in the mother's body during fetal development, or that the mother's DNA expression could be altered in some way and passed to her offspring," Stacy said. "[But] we would need additional studies to glean why that might be the case."

There has been criticismabout using the BMI system to determine obesity. However, it is the standard used by the World Health Organization.

WESA receives funding from the University of Pittsburgh and UPMC.