Abstract

Identifying factors that influence fetal growth in a sex-specific manner can help unravel mechanisms that explain sex differences in adverse neonatal outcomes and in-utero origins of cardiovascular disease disparities. Premature aging of the placenta, a tissue that supports fetal growth and exhibits sex-specific epigenetic changes, is associated with pregnancy complications. Using DNA methylation-based age estimator, we investigated the sex-specific relationship of placental epigenetic aging with fetal growth across 13-40 weeks gestation, neonatal size, and risk of low birth weight. Placental epigenetic age acceleration (PAA), the difference between DNA methylation age and gestational age, was associated with reduced fetal weight among males but with increased fetal weight among females. PAA was inversely associated with fetal weight, abdominal circumference, and biparietal diameter at 32-40 weeks among males but was positively associated with all growth measures among females across 13-40 weeks. A 1-week increase in PAA was associated with 2-fold (95% CI 1.2, 3.2) increased odds for low birth weight and 1.5-fold (95% CI 1.1, 2.0) increased odds for small-for-gestational age among males. In all, fetal growth was significantly reduced in males but not females exposed to a rapidly aging placenta. Epigenetic aging of the placenta may underlie sex differences in neonatal outcomes.