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Geelong study sheds light on children’s bone health

17 September 2013

Deakin University Geelong researchers are starting the next phase of a study of the impact of mothers’ vitamin D levels during pregnancy on the bone health of their children and are asking local residents to look out for an invitation that will be arriving in their letterboxes.

“We are entering an exciting phase of the study and will be relying on previous participants to take part in these follow up stages for the study to be a success,” said Professor Julie Pasco, the study’s lead investigator with Deakin’s School of Medicine based at Barwon Health.

The current study builds on 2002 research that found poor bone growth in infants whose mothers had low vitamin D levels during pregnancy.

“We know that vitamin D is important for maintaining healthy muscles and bones, and that during pregnancy adequate levels are needed to develop baby’s bones. What we don’t know is what level of vitamin D is adequate; that is what we are looking to find out with this study,” Professor Pasco explained.

The study started a decade ago, when expectant mothers were recruited from the antenatal clinic at Barwon Health. The researchers have received funding from the BUPA Health Foundation to undertake a follow up study, to run until 2015, with 350 children from the Geelong region.

“We have previously shown that infants whose mothers had low vitamin D levels during pregnancy had shorter knee-heel length, indicating poor bone development. Measurements also suggested that these infants had increased fat under the skin on the arms and decreased muscle tissue,” Professor Pasco said.

“Given the current concerns about childhood obesity, it is important to explore the notion that maternal vitamin D level might affect later body size and composition.

“Now the children are 10 years old and we are measuring them again to see whether differences are still evident as they have grown.

“Specifically, we will measure bone growth, muscle mass and function, body size and body fat in the children. We will also assess lung function and behavioural problems, to see if these developmental markers are also linked with maternal vitamin D levels during pregnancy.”

Most vitamin D is obtained through casual exposure to sunlight and very little vitamin D comes via the diet. It is a misconception that everyone receives enough sunlight to make adequate levels of vitamin D.

The researchers have previously shown that about 20 per cent of women of child-bearing age have low vitamin D levels, and this rises to about 30 per cent during winter. Severely low levels of vitamin D during pregnancy result in soft bones (rickets) in the children. The impact of moderately low maternal vitamin D levels is not yet known.

Findings from the new phase of this study will provide evidence to inform the ongoing policy debate regarding ideal maternal vitamin D levels and vitamin D supplement recommendations during pregnancy.

“Osteoporosis is a major public health problem that will become more common in Australia as the population ages,” Professor Pasco said.

“It is important that children are given a chance to maximise their growth and development, and attain the highest possible peak bone mass in young adulthood. This is a high priority public health goal that will reduce the risk for osteoporosis in later life.”

News facts
  • Impact of mothers’ vitamin D levels during pregnancy on the bone health of their children is being investigated by Deakin researchers
  • Study builds on 2002 research that found poor bone growth in infants whose mothers had low vitamin D levels during pregnancy
  • Researchers doing follow up study now the children are 10 years old to see whether differences are still evident as they have grown

Media contact

Mandi O'Garretty
Deakin Media Relations
03 5227 2776; 0418 361 890
mandi.ogarretty@deakin.edu.au

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24th September 2013