updated 2/10/2010 8:38:17 PM ET 2010-02-11T01:38:17

Obese mothers put newborns at greater risk for Alzheimer's disease, Parkinson's disease, diabetes, stroke, heart disease and other ills, new research suggests.

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The study, done on rats, found that their body chemistry changed for life if mom was obese. Researchers expect the same phenomenon would occur in humans, given the similar physiologies, but more research is needed to confirm that.

"Our hope is also that these data will lead people to consider the consequences of their dietary intakes not only for their own health, but also for their children's health, and potentially even their grandchildren's health," said study co-author Staci D. Bilbo at Duke University.

Close to two-thirds of pregnant women in the United States are overweight or obese, a condition that can lead to gestational diabetes, preeclampsia, retaining weight after giving birth, and overweight children, previous research has shown. A separate recent study concluded that obese pregnant women should gain as little as 10 pounds during pregnancy — less than had previously been advised, because packing on more pounds adds risks to the pregnancy and the health of the newborn.

Bilbo and colleagues placed rats on one of three diets (low-fat, high-saturated fat, and high-trans fat) four weeks prior to mating and throughout pregnancy and lactation. The high-fat diets rendered the mice clinically obese.

The newborn pups' brains were analyzed. Offspring born to mothers on the high-fat diets showed increased immune cell activation and release of injurious substances known as cytokines, all right after birth. The changes stuck even until the newborns became adults, and even after they were put on low-fat diets.

"This hyper-response to inflammation remained dramatically increased compared to rats born to normal-weight mothers," the researchers write in the FASEB journal.

Alzheimer's, Parkinson's, type 2 diabetes, stroke and heart disease are all considered inflammation-related disorders.

"If there ever was a maternal hex, obesity might be it," said Dr. Gerald Weissmann, editor-in-chief of the journal, "and as it turns out, even after the weight comes off, the biggest loser isn't a mother, but her child."

In a separate study also out today, researchers found that pre-pregnancy obesity and excessive weight gain during pregnancy are associated with an increased risk of preterm birth among African Americans. The findings are published online by the journal Epidemiology.

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