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The foetal period determines future health

16 Nov 2017

Future health and illnesses are largely defined by the first nine months of human life. In a birth cohort study (the Helsinki Birth Cohort Study, or HBCS) led by Professor Johan Eriksson of the University of Helsinki, foetal programming, i.e. the impact of the prenatal period on later health, was correlated to a range of risk factors associated with non-communicable diseases. The study was funded by the Academy of Finland.

Birth weight is considered an indication of prenatal nutrition and wellbeing. This increased risk is mediated via multiple mechanisms, including disruptions in gene function. A small-sized newborn also has relatively small internal organs, such as a smaller pancreas and kidneys. On the other hand, the issue is also affected by growth during childhood and possible excess weight during adulthood.

“In our research, we found that the roots of coronary heart disease lie in the foetal stage, and the same applies to type 2 diabetes. Low birth weight is a factor that, together with relatively excessive weight in childhood, leads to an unfavourable body composition and thus to illness, as indicated by the findings with respect to issues such as coronary heart disease,” Eriksson explains.

In the ageing study, evidence emerged that, for example, physical function is partly programmed during the foetal period. “Our research team’s new findings show that birth weight and childhood growth are also associated with frailty or sarcopenia, seven decades later. Information provided on the early stages of life of the birth cohorts enabled the investigation of these relationships in the ageing study. From a public health perspective, this information can be used to identify different risk profiles,” says docent Mikaela von Bonsdorff, a specialist in gerontology from the University of Jyväskylä.

Prevention is worthwhile

The HBCS study also involved a more detailed investigation of the consequences of being overweight. Maternal overweight during pregnancy creates an environment for the growing foetus in which the risk of obesity also increases for the offspring. This risk concerns cardiovascular diseases and many cancers, as well as obesity.

“Low birth weight is, of course, a major risk factor for adult illnesses, but preventive measures still play a major role. A healthy diet, exercise and normal weight significantly reduce the risk of diseases. Human life should be viewed as a continuum rather than focusing only on pregnancy or early childhood. Childhood blends into adolescence, which is already the pre-pregnancy stage. Each stage represents an opportunity for disease prevention. Much greater emphasis should be placed on the life-cycle perspective on health in education and teaching,” Eriksson and von Bonsdorff say.

Finnish research has made use of Finland’s unique child welfare clinic system and the resulting growth data, as well as comprehensive registers in Finland. Mainly inspired by the HBCS study (the HBCS’s findings have been presented in more than 150 international publications), in its own recommendations the World Health Organization has highlighted the importance of the first thousand days of life to a child’s health in later years.

The HBCS research group includes specialists in paediatrics, general practice and geriatrics. The group has been working for over 20 years.

More information

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Leena Vähäkylä, Communications Specialist
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Last modified 16 Nov 2017
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