London: The process of ageing begins even before we are born, says a new study, which used rats to model pregnancy and foetal development.
The study showed that providing mothers with a diet loaded with antioxidants during pregnancy meant that their offspring aged more slowly during adulthood.
The offspring of mothers with lower levels of oxygen in the womb can age more quickly in adulthood.
"Antioxidants are known to reduce ageing, but here, we show for the first time that giving them to pregnant mothers can slow down the ageing clock of their offspring,” said first author Beth Allison from the University of Cambridge in Britain.
The study, published in The FASEB Journal, also emphasised that the environment we're exposed to in the womb may be just as, if not more, important in programming a risk of adult-onset of heart disease.
The researchers found that adult rats born from mothers who had less oxygen during pregnancy had shorter telomeres -- essential part of human cells that affects the age of cells -- than rats born from normal pregnancies.
The offsprings' also experienced problems with the inner lining of their blood vessels - revealing signs that they had aged more quickly and were prone to developing heart disease earlier than normal.
However, when pregnant mothers in the group were given antioxidant supplements, this lowered the risk among their offspring of developing heart disease, the researchers noted.
The foetus, which received appropriate levels of oxygen - benefiting from a maternal diet of antioxidants displayed longer telomeres than those rats whose mothers did not receive the antioxidant supplements during pregnancy.
Although conducted in rats, the research suggests that it might be applicable in humans and focuses the need for pregnant mothers to maintain a healthy lifestyle for the sake of their baby's future heart health, the researchers noted.