Prenatal Exposure to Famine and Ageing
Chronic mild caloric restriction delays the aging process and increases lifespan. But poor nutrition during critical periods of early human development has lasting negative consequences for growth, development and health. Studies of men and women born around the time of the Dutch famine of 1944–1945 have shown that undernutrition during critical periods of development increase the risk of chronic degenerative diseases in later life and may accelerate the aging process. The Dutch famine was an acute period of undernutrition that was clearly circumscribed in time and place, it had an abrupt beginning and end and struck a population that was previously and subsequently well nourished. Also, the administration was well organised and records were kept allowing researchers to investigate the consequences of starvation in the decades that followed. All these characteristics make the Dutch famine uniquely suited for such studies, and allow researchers to take a quasi-experimental design to address a question that would otherwise be impossible to answer in a human setting. The effects of undernutrition depended on its timing during gestation, and the organs and tissues undergoing critical periods of development at that time. Early gestation appeared to be the most vulnerable period. The effects of famine exposure were widespread and affected the structure and function of many organs and tissues, resulted in altered behaviour, accelerated aging and increased risks of chronic degenerative diseases, which in turn led to reduced participation in the labour market and increased mortality. Studies in other settings also show that those faced with undernutrition during the critical earliest stages of development have increased rates of chronic generative diseases in adult life. This suggests that these findings reflect biologically fundamental processes that describe human plasticity. Proper nutrition from the earliest stages of life will allow future generations to reach their full potential and lead healthier and more productive lives, ultimately leading to a healthier future.
KeywordsDutch famine Prenatal famine exposure Quasi-experimental design Critical period of development Chronic degenerative disease Ageing
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