Researchers with Kaiser Permanente say that a five-year study released Tuesday proves a link between women who develop diabetes when they're pregnant, and the likelihood of their children becoming obese.
But Kaiser doctors say the study also found that treatment during pregnancy can stop that trend in nearly all cases. Rob Manning reports on how the new study changes the conversation around gestational diabetes.
The Kaiser Permanente study set out to test something that doctors and nurses like Shelly Anderson had long suspected.
Shelly Anderson: “It's always been a question, because you hear all over, the rise in childhood obesity, and there's always that question, 'Is it linked at all to what happened during pregnancy?'”
Teresa Hillier: “We found that the higher a woman's blood-sugar during pregnancy, the greater her child's chance for obesity at age five to seven.”
That's lead researcher Teresa Hillier, who says this link is now clear. But Hillier's research also delivered a very promising conclusion about treatment.
Teresa Hillier: “When a woman was treated for diabetes, her child's chances of obesity dropped to the same level as women who have normal blood-sugar levels.”
The study evaluated the medical records of more than 9,000 women from Oregon, Washington, and Hawaii and their kids. It found that treating women with gestational diabetes reduced the obesity risk for their children to the same rate as kids with non-diabetic parents.
Vanessa Hayden was one of the diabetic mothers in the study. She says she first learned she was diabetic when she was pregnant with her now 7-year-old daughter.
Vanessa Hayden: “Well, to begin with you're terrified. You think, 'Oh my gosh, I don't want a baby with heart defects, I don't want to deliver a 20-pound baby.'”
But Hayden says she calmed down quickly and got used to checking her blood-sugar levels every few hours, and responding with a snack, exercise, or an insulin shot.
Vanessa Hayden: “My blood sugar levels were good, I listened to my nurses and my doctors, and followed the regimen, took that very seriously, and my daughter is not overweight, whatsoever.”
At the time, Hayden was only worried about the immediate risks to her newborn. Now, Kaiser researchers say that conditions in the womb can lead to problems that continue years later.
Study author Teresa Hillier says what happens is that fetuses adjust to the pre-birth environment, and that's the metabolism they're born with.
Teresa Hillier: “If you think about different times in history, with feast and famine, it makes sense that the fetus, it would be good to adapt to the environment, and I think in this case, it is adapting to an overfed, or 'feast' state.”
The overfed babies were 89% more likely to be overweight 7 years later, and nearly as likely to be obese, according to Hillier's research.
Now a mother of four, Vanessa Hayden says she sees the study as a “gift," rather than a shock. She says the benefits of treatment should be convincing to parents.
Vanessa Hayden: “And it's no longer just about having a healthy baby, or not having a 20-pound baby, now it goes further than. You're giving your child an edge on their health, and that's huge! I mean what parent doesn't want the best for their child? Everybody does.”
The long-term view could help at difficult times. Hayden says she had a hard time keeping to a diabetic diet, especially around the holidays.
Nurse Shelly Anderson says the research could reduce the resistance some parents feel about changing their diets. Some cultures have close ties to foods, like rice and bread, that can get diabetic moms in trouble. And Anderson says young parents can be tough to convince, too.
Shelly Anderson: “They want to be like the rest of their friends, they don't want to have to count carbohydrates, they don't want to have to limit what they eat when they go to McDonald's. In reality, they have to do that to get to where they need to be.”
The study did not look at why some women have diabetes only during pregnancy, while others, like Vanessa Hayden, remain diabetics afterwards.
There's some hope for adult diabetics from another study coming out tomorrow from Oregon Health and Science University. It highlights the importance of a particular brain neuron and its failure to read blood-sugar messages from the body. And like the Kaiser study, it offers a promising path for treatment.