It may sound crazy, but according to a new study at the University of Cambridge, the process of aging begins even before we are born.
Researchers used rats to model pregnancy and fetal development, and found that providing pregnant moms with antioxidents may make their children age more slowly later in life—pass the blueberries!—and that the offspring of mothers with lower levels of oxygen in the womb (which can be a consequence of smoking during pregnancy in humans) aged more quickly as adults.
Another reason to kick that cigarette habit ASAP!
"Our study in rats suggests that the aging clock begins ticking even before we are born and enter this world, which may surprise many people," said Professor Dino Giussani, the study's senior author. "We already know that our genes interact with environmental risk factors, such as smoking, obesity, and lack of exercise to increase our risk of heart disease, but here we've shown that the environment we're exposed to in the womb may be just as, if not more, important in programming a risk of adult-onset cardiovascular disease."
In order to figure all this out, researchers measured the length of telomeres (the ends of chromosomes) in blood vessels of adult lab rats born from mothers who were or were not fed antioxidants during pregnancy. (Telomeres become shorter and shorter as we age, so their length can be used as a proxy to measure aging.)
What they found: The adult rats born from mothers who had less oxygen during pregnancy had shorter telomeres, and experienced problems with the inner lining of their blood vessels, a sign that they had aged more quickly and were predisposed to developing early heart disease. But when these same pregnant moms were given antioxidant supplements, the risk of their offspring of developing heart disease was lowered.
"Antioxidants are known to reduce aging, but here, we show for the first time that giving them to pregnant mothers in the latter half of gestation can slow down the aging clock of their offspring," said Dr. Allison of The Hudson Institute of Medical Research."This appears to be particularly important when there are complications with the pregnancy and the fetus is deprived of oxygen."
She added that while this discovery was found using rats, it suggests a way to treat similar problems in humans.