Larger placenta size in pregnancy linked to offspring bone development

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Mothers who have larger placentas during pregnancy are more likely to have children with bigger bones, a new study has found.

Researchers from the Medical Research Council (MRC) Lifecourse Epidemiology Unit, University of Southampton analysed information on more than 500 children and their mothers taking part in the Avon Longitudinal Study of Parents and Children.

They joined their colleagues at the University of Bristol’s MRC Integrative Epidemiology Unit and School of Social and Community Medicine to examine results of cohort members’ bone scans taken at 9, 15 and 17 years of age. They also measured the thickness, volume and weight of the mothers’ placentas.

The study’s authors found that greater placenta size was associated with larger bones at each age of childhood.

The relationship remained even after adjusting for factors such as the child’s height, weight and pubertal status.

Professor Nicholas Harvey, Professor of Rheumatology and Clinical Epidemiology, who led the research, said: “While there are many factors that are likely to influence placental size and function, and importantly, we don’t know as yet whether a larger placenta actually causes the greater offspring bone mass, these findings really help us to understand the possible mechanisms whereby factors such as maternal diet, smoking, physical activity and vitamin D status may influence offspring bone development.”

The researchers believe this latest research offers new insights into earlier observations linking maternal factors in pregnancy with offspring bone health. Larger bones in early life are likely to lead to larger, stronger bones in older adulthood, which reduces the risk of osteoporosis and broken bones in later life.

Professor Cyrus Cooper, Professor of Rheumatology and Director of the MRC Lifecourse Epidemiology Unit, said: “This work forms part of a larger programme of research seeking to develop interventions in early life aimed at optimising bone development and reducing the risk of osteoporotic fracture in older age. Confirmation of our earlier Southampton findings in the Bristol cohort is testament to the close working between Southampton and Bristol collaborators, and demonstrates the clear benefit to UK science from such cross-cohort investigations.”

Further information

‘Placental size is associated differentially with postnatal bone size and density’ by Holroyd, Osmond, Barker, Ring, Lawlor, Tobias, Davey Smith, Cooper, and Harvey was published in the Journal of Bone and Mineral Research on 21 March 2016