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Fetal Origins – How Experiences in the Womb Can Influence the Rest of Your Life

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Pregnancy SilhouetteAn article in the September issue of Time Magazine featured an article by Annie Murphy Paul. The expecting mother and author interviewed top scientists and scholars for her investigation into the ties that have been found between the experiences a child encounters in the womb and of their life after birth, in some cases all influencing outcomes even in old age.

“What makes us the way we are?” Conventional answers to questions like these about our health, from heart disease to high blood pressure to schizophrenia, often compel the same answer by traditional science- It’s in our DNA. But another influence that is not often considered, explained Paul, is your life as a fetus. “The kind and quantity of nutrition you received in the womb; the pollutants, drugs and infections you were exposed to during gestation, your mother’s health… all these factors shaped you as a baby and child and continue to affect you to this day.”



This field of study between life in the womb and life after birth is known as fetal origins and its pioneers assert that “the nine months gestation constitutes the most consequential period of our lives.” Its origins stem back to British physician David Barker, who noticed a correlation on a map between the poorest regions of England and Wales, and the regions with the highest rates of heart disease. After comparing some 15,000 individuals with their birth weight, his studies found a link between small birth size (an indication of poor prenatal nutrition), and heart disease in middle-age. Baker conjectured that the fetus, without adequate food supply, diverts nutrients to the brain while skimping on other essential parts of the body, like the heart. Barker’s results were met with skepticism, though some nay-sayers converted after their own studies showed similar links.

Adult ties to life in the womb do not stop at heart disease. Studies have supported links to obesity, depression, diabetes, and even schizophrenia. A study based from Anhui province in China suggests that prenatal factors can play a role in the illness. In the mid-20th century, residents of the specified region experienced severe malnutrition as a result of famine brought about by political turmoil. “Individuals born to women suffering from the famine were twice as likely to develop schizophrenia as those gestating at other times,” the results concluded.

Research and studies into fetal origins continues today with many studies from Project Viva to the National Children’s study. The field recognizes that what a women encounters in her daily life plays a part in some way to her fetus. Nobel Prize winning economist Amartya Sen co-authored a paper about the importance of fetal origins to a population’s health and productivity. She explains in the paper that the prenatal experience makes the woman a “promising target for prevention, raising hopes of conquering public-health scourges like obesity and heart disease through interventions before birth.”
*This intention of this blog was to focus specifically on the fetal origin ties found between malnutrition and life in the woman. The Time article expands on other issues that have been shown to play a role in health and development, including pollution, stress level, and blood sugar.

Read a synopsis of the article>>

Read Nicholas Kristof’s article “At Risk from the Womb” in the New York Times >>

By Kim Saam, Vitamin Angels. Vitamin Angels is a non-profit organization whose mission is to mobilize and deploy private sector resources to advance availability, access and use of micronutrients, especially vitamin A, by newborns, infants and children in need. Vitamin Angels reduces child mortality worldwide by connecting essential nutrients.




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