Children whose mothers were undernourished during pregnancy may have prematurely ageing hearts, an animal study suggests.
Scientists made the discovery after studying pregnant baboons and their young. The animals were chosen for the research because their hearts develop and age in much the same way as those of humans.
Offspring of baboons with a restricted diet showed signs of accelerated reduced heart function with age.
By five years old, equivalent to 20 human years, the structure and performance of their hearts were already impaired.
The same problem could affect children in developed countries such as the UK and US as well as poorer developing countries, say the researchers.
Restricted nutrition of the kind experienced by the mother baboons could be seen in women of reproductive age in developed countries who have to struggle to make ends meet.
Dr Peter Nathanielsz, director of the Wyoming Pregnancy and Life Course Health Centre at the University of Wyoming, US, who co-led the study, said: "Women's health during pregnancy is of fundamental importance to the lifetime health of their babies.
"Society must pay attention to improving women's nutrition before and during pregnancy to prevent these adverse outcomes in babies."
The research is published in The Journal Of Physiology.