Journal Article

Maternal pre-pregnancy BMI and reproductive health in adult sons: a study in the Danish National Birth Cohort

Gaml-Sørensen, A., Hjorth Thomsen, A., Søgaard Tøttenborg, S., Brix, N., Sørig Hougaard, K., Toft, G., Håberg, S. E., Myrskylä, M., Bonde, J. P., Høst Ramlau-Hansen, C.
Human Reproduction, 39:1, 219–231 (2024)
Open Access


STUDY QUESTION: Is maternal pre-pregnancy BMI associated with semen quality, testes volume, and reproductive hormone levels in sons?
SUMMARY ANSWER: Maternal pre-pregnancy BMI was associated with an altered reproductive hormone profile in young adult sons, characterized by higher levels of oestradiol, LH, and free androgen index (FAI) and lower levels of sex hormone-binding globulin (SHBG) in sons born of mothers with pre-pregnancy overweight and obesity.
WHAT IS KNOWN ALREADY: Evidence suggests that maternal pre-pregnancy BMI may influence reproductive health later in life. Only one pilot study has investigated the association between maternal pre-pregnancy BMI and reproductive health outcomes in sons, suggesting that a high BMI was associated with impaired reproductive function in the adult sons.
STUDY DESIGN, SIZE, DURATION: A population-based follow-up study of 1058 young men from the Fetal Programming of Semen Quality (FEPOS) cohort nested within the Danish National Birth Cohort (DNBC), 1998–2019, was carried out.
PARTICIPANTS/MATERIALS, SETTING, METHODS: In total, 1058 adult sons (median age 19 years, 2months), born 1998–2000 by mothers included in the DNBC, participated in FEPOS. At a clinical examination, they provided a semen and blood sample, measured their testes volume, and had height and weight measured. Maternal pre-pregnancy BMI was obtained by self-report in early pregnancy. Semen characteristics, testes volume, and reproductive hormone levels were analysed according to maternal pre-pregnancy BMI categories and as restricted cubic splines using negative binomial and ordinary least square regression models. Mediation analyses examined potential mediation by the sons’ birthweight, pubertal timing, fat mass, and BMI. Additional analyses investigated the role of paternal BMI in the potential associations between maternal BMI and reproductive health outcomes.
MAIN RESULTS AND THE ROLE OF CHANCE: We found no consistent associations between maternal pre-pregnancy BMI and semen characteristics or testes volume. Sons of mothers with higher pre-pregnancy BMI had higher oestradiol and lower SHBG levels, both in a dose-dependent manner. Sons of mothers with pre-pregnancy obesity (30 kg/m2 ) had higher LH levels and a higher FAI than sons born by mothers with normal pre-pregnancy BMI (18.5–24.9 kg/m2 ). The mediation analyses suggested that the effect of maternal pre-pregnancy BMI on higher levels of oestrogen, LH, and FAI was partly mediated by the sons’ birthweight, in addition to adult fat mass and BMI measured at the clinical examination, whereas most of the effect on lower levels of SHBG was primarily mediated by the sons’ own fat mass and BMI. Paternal BMI was not a strong confounder of the associations in this study.
LIMITATIONS, REASONS FOR CAUTION: This study was based in a population-based cohort with a low prevalence of overweight and obesity in both mothers and adult sons. Some men (10%) had blood for reproductive hormone assessment drawn in the evening. While several potential confounding factors were accounted for, this study's inherent risk of residual and unmeasured confounding precludes provision of causal estimates. Therefore, caution should be given when interpreting the causal effect of maternal BMI on sons’ reproductive health.
WIDER IMPLICATIONS OF THE FINDINGS: Given the widespread occurrence of overweight and obesity among pregnant women, it is imperative to thoroughly examine the potential consequences for reproductive hormone levels in adult sons. The potential effects of maternal pre-pregnancy obesity on sons’ reproductive hormone profile may potentially be partly avoided by the prevention of overweight and obesity in the sons.

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