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Weaker bones in children closely linked to mother's vitamin D levels during pregnancy

Published: 7 January 2006

A team at the Medical Research Council's Epidemiology Resource Centre at the University of Southampton has found that maternal vitamin D deficiency is associated with poor skeletal growth of children and therefore an elevated risk of bone fracture in later life. The study is published the latest issue of The Lancet.

The researchers carried out bone scans of 200 nine-year-old children whose mothers had taken part in a nutritional survey during pregnancy. They found that the poorer the mother's vitamin D status during pregnancy, the lower her child's bone mass tended to be at nine years of age. This deficit manifests as a reduction in bone size and bone mineral content.

The study found that pregnant women who took vitamin D supplements and were exposed to higher levels of sunlight, which helps the body to produce its own vitamin D, were less likely to be deficient in the vitamin.

Professor Cyrus Cooper, the leader of the MRC research team and Chair of the National Osteoporosis Society said: "These findings provide unique evidence that a mother's vitamin D status during pregnancy has a long-lasting effect on her child's bone development.

"Vitamin D deficiency is common in pregnant women, and we know that developing high bone mass during childhood and adolescence is important for reducing the risk of osteoporosis in later life. Therefore, measures to improve levels of vitamin D, such as taking supplements, particularly during the winter months when sunlight levels are low, may help to prevent osteoporosis in the next generation."

Other factors such as maternal body build, nutrition, smoking and physical activity during pregnancy have also been shown to affect the strength of a baby's bones at birth.

Professor Colin Blakemore, the Chief Executive of the Medical Research Council said: "These results provide valuable information that should have a real impact in preventing bone disorders. This study is an excellent example of the importance of investment in long-term epidemiological research. The Medical Research Council, working with many partner organisations in the UK, is committed to translating the results of medical research as quickly and effectively as possible into preventive healthcare strategies."

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Notes for editors

  1. The Medical Research Council (MRC) is a national organisation funded by the UK tax-payer. Its business is medical research aimed at improving human health; everyone stands to benefit from the outputs. The research it supports and the scientists it trains meet the needs of the health services, the pharmaceutical and other health-related industries and the academic world. MRC has funded work which has led to some of the most significant discoveries and achievements in medicine in the UK. About half of the MRC's expenditure of £510 million is invested in its 40 Institutes, Units and Centres. The remaining half goes in the form of grant support and training awards to individuals and teams in universities and medical schools. Web site at: http://www.mrc.ac.uk.
  2. One in two women and one in five men over the age of 50 will develop osteoporosis. Without treatment, osteoporosis can cause painful and disabling fractures, particularly in the wrist, hip and spine. The National Osteoporosis Society (NOS) is the UK's authoritative voice on the bone disease osteoporosis. The NOS offers support to people with osteoporosis, their families and carers through a range of information booklets, a national telephone helpline and a network of local support groups. Increasing numbers of people develop osteoporosis and more people need help every year. The charity campaigns to make people aware of their own bone health. It lobbies government and service providers to take forward awareness and issues around the disease. It draws together the many scientific disciplines involved in osteoporosis together with NOS staff and 24,000 members to provide unrivalled expertise. The NOS partially funded this study through its research grants programme. Website at: www.nos.org.uk
  3. The University of Southampton is one of the UK's top 10 research universities, with a global reputation for excellence in both teaching and research. The University is recognised internationally for its leading-edge research in engineering, science, computer science and medicine, and for its strong enterprise agenda. It is home to world-leading research centres, including the MRC Epidemiology Resource Centre; the Centre for the Developmental Origins of Health and Disease; the National Oceanography Centre, Southampton; the Institute of Sound and Vibration Research; the Optoelectronics Research Centre; and the Textile Conservation Centre.

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