Effects of prenatal exposure to the Dutch famine on adult disease in later life: an overview

Twin Res. 2001 Oct;4(5):293-8. doi: 10.1375/1369052012605.


People who were small at birth have been shown to have an increased risk of CHD and chronic bronchitis in later life. These findings have led to the fetal origins hypothesis that proposes that the fetus adapts to a limited supply of nutrients, and in doing so it permanently alters its physiology and metabolism, which could increase its risk of disease in later life. The Dutch famine--though a historical disaster--provides a unique opportunity to study effects of undernutrition during gestation in humans. People who had been exposed to famine in late or mid gestation had reduced glucose tolerance. Whereas people exposed to famine in early gestation had a more atherogenic lipid profile, somewhat higher fibrinogen concentrations and reduced plasma concentrations of factor VII, a higher BMI and they appeared to have a higher risk of CHD. Though the latter was based on small numbers, as could be expected from the relatively young age of the cohort. Nevertheless, this is the first evidence in humans that maternal undernutrition during gestation is linked with the risk of CHD in later life. Our findings broadly support the hypothesis that chronic diseases originate through adaptations made by the fetus in response to undernutrition. The long-term effects of intrauterine undernutrition, however, depend upon its timing during gestation and on the tissues and systems undergoing critical periods of development at that time. Furthermore, our findings suggest that maternal malnutrition during gestation may permanently affect adult health without affecting the size of the baby at birth. This gives the fetal origins hypothesis a new dimension. It may imply that adaptations that enable the fetus to continue to grow may nevertheless have adverse consequences for health in later life. CHD may be viewed as the price paid for successful adaptations to an adverse intra-uterine environment. It also implies that the long-term consequences of improved nutrition of pregnant women will be underestimated if these are solely based on the size of the baby at birth. We need to know more about what an adequate diet for pregnant women might be. In general, women are especially receptive to advice about diet and lifestyle before and during a pregnancy. This should be exploited to improve the health of future generations.

MeSH terms

  • Adult
  • Cohort Studies
  • Coronary Disease / etiology*
  • Female
  • Follow-Up Studies
  • Humans
  • Infant, Newborn
  • Male
  • Netherlands
  • Nutrition Disorders*
  • Placental Insufficiency / complications*
  • Pregnancy
  • Pregnancy Complications*
  • Prenatal Exposure Delayed Effects*