Ageing begins even before a person is born, according to a study led by the University of Cambridge. Published in The FASEB Journal on March 1, the study blames low levels of oxygen in the womb during pregnancy for this effect which may be due to smoking during pregnancy, pregnancy complications or even living at high altitudes.

The researchers, supported by the British Heart Foundation (BHF), placed a group of pregnant lab rats in a room that contained seven percent less oxygen. Some of the rats were fed with antioxidants.

The team said that they measured the offsprings’ telomeres, a structure that can be found at the end of a chromosome that shortens with age. Because of this, the telomeres is considered a good ageing indicator.

They found out that some offsprings born from mothers, that did not receive antioxidants, have shorter telomeres. They showed signs of ageing that included problems with the inner lining of their blood vessels, making them more prone to developing heart disease at an earlier age.

Smoking during pregnancy lowers oxygen levels in the womb. Pixabay/geralt

Smoking during pregnancy lowers oxygen levels in the womb. Photo from Pixabay/geralt

However, the offsprings of rats that were given antioxidant supplements have longer telomeres, have less heart disease risk, and aged more slowly in adulthood. According to study author Beth Allison, this demonstrated that antioxidants slows down ageing of offsprings born from mothers who received antioxidants during either uncomplicated or complicated pregnancy.

“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,” says senior author Dino Giussani, a professor from the Department of Physiology Development & Neuroscience at the University of Cambridge.

“Previous research funded by the BHF has shown that sub-optimal conditions within the mother’s womb can lead to an increased risk of cardiovascular disease in later life,” concludes BHF’s associate medical director, Jeremy Pearson. “However, the mechanisms involved are poorly understood. Although conducted in rats, this research emphasises the need for pregnant mothers to maintain a healthy lifestyle for the sake of their baby’s future heart health.”