Risk of cardiovascular disease can be influenced during pregnancy

Increased awareness for the consumption of essential fatty acids during pregnancy may reduce the risk of cardiovascular disease in children. This was the conclusion drawn by researchers at Maastricht UMC+ following a long-term study on the effects of diet and nutrition on neonatal development. They found a correlation between maternal fatty acid concentrations during pregnancy and neonatal blood pressure, cholesterol and weight.

Certain essential fatty acids (i.e. acids that the body is unable to produce naturally) are known to have positive health effects. Research has shown that omega-3 fatty acids, which occur naturally in fish, can help protect against cardiovascular disease. Omega-6 fatty acids, which can be found in vegetable oils, are also believed to have positive health effects. Researchers at Maastricht UMC+ have found that, while omega-3 and omega-6 fatty acids may play an important role in the physical development of the child, the beneficial health effects of these fatty acids do not apply to unborn children.


In 1989, researchers began studying the concentration of maternal fatty acids during pregnancy. Seven years later, the risk factors for cardiovascular disease were tested in some of these children. The researchers found that the presence of certain omega-3 fatty acids in the mother had adverse effects on the total cholesterol level in the child. Omega-6 fatty acids appeared to have a negative effect on the child’s body mass index (BMI) and blood pressure. ‘Raising awareness for the importance of nutrition, and particularly for the consumption of fatty acids during pregnancy, can in theory help to programme and influence child development,’ says Marij Gielen, a head researcher at Maastricht UMC+.

Follow-up research

The children from the original research study are now approximately twenty-five years old, which gives the researchers the perfect opportunity to expand their prenatal programming study. ‘We are about to start a new study to research whether the concentration of fatty acids during pregnancy influenced academic performance and the development of obesity in these children now that they are adults,’ Gielen adds.


The research findings were recently published in the scientific journal PLEFA. More information about the Maastricht Essential Fatty Acid Birth cohort (MEFAB cohort) can be found on www.mefab.org.

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