Preeclampsia Could Slow Fetal Development, Study Finds

Common pregnancy complications like gestational diabetes and preeclampsia may slow infant development in the womb, according to a new study.

This leads to newborns being biologically younger than their gestational age, according to researchers from universities across the United States who contributed to the study.

Researchers estimated the infants’ biological or “epigenetic” age based on molecular markers in their cells.

“In aging research, if your epigenetic ‘clock’ shows an older age than your chronological age — due to exposures to various stressors — that’s viewed as bad, as putting people at increased risks for illness,” said study co-author Carrie Breton, a professor of population and public health sciences at the University of Southern California’s Keck School of Medicine.

In this case, researchers found the opposite.

“Pregnancy complications led to babies with a younger biological age,” Breton said in a university news release. “This raises a ton of questions about the impact later in life. This is a fairly new metric and very little is known about it.”

The authors said these results raise intriguing questions about how health outcomes later in childhood may be affected.

They wondered, for example, whether developmental delays might result and what impact factors such as exposures to environmental pollution might have on infants. They also wondered whether some exposures could advance biological age prematurely, even in the womb.

To study this, researchers collected DNA samples from 1,801 U.S. newborns.

Babies were born between 1998 and 2008 to mothers who had preeclampsia (a high blood pressure disorder that results in protein in the urine as well as other symptoms), gestational diabetes or high blood pressure during pregnancy. Researchers compared them to pregnancies without any of these complications.

They then compared the infant’s biological age to his or her chronological age at birth, measured in pregnancy weeks.

Babies who were exposed to preeclampsia or gestational diabetes in the womb were biologically younger than babies without the exposures, the study found.

This finding would indicate that these exposures may have slowed the babies’ biological development. Researchers saw a more noticeable difference in female babies than in male babies.

The study did not find a measurable impact from exposure to high blood pressure.

“In the future, we plan to continue our research with a larger sample of participants and investigate whether these biological changes detected at birth are linked to health outcomes later in childhood,” Breton said. “If so, doctors and researchers could use that knowledge to develop targeted interventions that can reduce the adverse effects of preeclampsia and gestational diabetes on children’s health.”

Study findings were published Feb. 24 in JAMA Network Open.

More information

The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has more on pregnancy complications.

SOURCE: University of Southern California, news release, Feb. 24, 2023