Children of overweight and obese mothers are at increased risk of epilepsy

10 May 2017
Pregnant woman

Children born to women who are obese during the first trimester of pregnancy are more likely to develop epilepsy.

The Swedish study reviewing more than 1.4million births is reported in the Journal of the American Medical Association Neurology.

The authors say that the increasing number overweight and obese mothers has led to concern about the potential impact this may have long-term neurological effect of their children.

The population cohort review looked at early pregnancy BMI and the risk of childhood epilepsy in single births between 1997 and 2011.

Of the 1.4 million children born in the study time period, about 7,500 or 0.5% were later diagnosed with epilepsy.

Epilepsy rates were higher among children born to mothers with lower educational levels, those living without a partner, those who had more than four births, those who were smokers and those who were born outside of Nordic countries.

However, the investigators found that the odds a child would develop epilepsy corresponded to their mother’s body mass index (BMI) at around 14 weeks of pregnancy.

The increased risk of developing epilepsy includes:

  • 11 percent increased risk for the children of overweight mothers (BMI of 25-30)
  • 20 percent increased risk for the children of mothers with grade I obesity (BMI 30-35).
  • 30 percent increased risk for the children of mothers with grade II obesity (BMI 35-40).
  • 82 percent increased risk for the children of mothers with grade III obesity (BMI 40 or more).

The authors say: "Given that overweight and obesity are potentially modifiable risk factors, prevention of obesity in women of reproductive age may be an important public health strategy to reduce the incidence of epilepsy."

They suggest there are several potential ways a mother's excess weight could increase risk of childhood epilepsy, including:

  • The heightened risk of preterm birth and birth defects, which in turn increase risk of epilepsy
  • The greater likelihood of trauma or low oxygen levels during birth
  • The greater likelihood of inflammation in the mother’s body.  

You can read the full study looking at the links between a mother’s BMI and the risk of childhood epilepsy here.