As a species we are dependent on the health and wellbeing of our mothers. Two issues relating to this have been in the news recently – stunted growth and prematurely ageing hearts.
Popular opinion has long asserted that stunted growth is caused by malnutrition in the child. However, the chief risk factor for stunting is poor fetal growth in the womb, according to a new study in the journal PLoS Medicine. Such a situation almost certainly follows on from poor maternal health prior to conception.
Stunting is not just a problem for the individuals affected, it’s a cause of economic hardship in developing countries with a physically impoverished potential workforce. To address this, the emphasis has to shift to the health of mothers, and not just the environmental conditions a child encounters after birth, (e.g. malnutrition, disease, poor sanitation).
A third of all children in the 137 developing countries studied in the research suffer stunted growth. The study attributes this to various factors: poor fetal growth and preterm birth, environmental factors, maternal nutrition and infection, child nutrition and infection, teenage motherhood, and short birth intervals. It concludes:
“Fetal growth rate and unimproved sanitation are the leading risk factors for stunting in developing countries. Reducing the burden of stunting requires a paradigm shift from interventions focusing solely on children and infants to those that reach mothers and families and improve their living environment and nutrition.”
Stunting is just one of many problems passed to children by unhealthy mothers. Children of undernourished mothers are more likely to suffer premature ageing of the heart, new research reveals.
The study, published in The Journal of Physiology, looked at the food intake of pregnant baboons and the subsequent health of their offspring’s heart. It seems that a malnourished mother produces abnormal structure and function in the fetus’ developing organs, making it more likely that the child will suffer chronic illnesses and a prematurely ageing heart.
Commenting on the research for EurekAlert!, Dr. Peter Nathanielsz, director of the Wyoming Pregnancy and Life Course Health Center at the University of Wyoming had this to say (and the italics are mine, for emphasis):
“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.”