The Dutch famine and its long-term consequences for adult health

Early Hum Dev. 2006 Aug;82(8):485-91. doi: 10.1016/j.earlhumdev.2006.07.001. Epub 2006 Jul 28.


Small size at birth is linked with an increased risk of chronic diseases in later life. Poor maternal nutrition during gestation may contribute to restricted fetal growth, leading to increased disease susceptibility in later life. Animal studies have shown that undernutrition during gestation is associated with reduced life span and increased disease susceptibility. The Dutch famine is a unique counterpart for animal models that study the effects of restricted maternal nutrition during different stages of gestation. This paper describes the findings from a cohort study of 2414 people born around the time of the Dutch famine. Exposure to famine during any stage of gestation was associated with glucose intolerance. We found more coronary heart disease, a more atherogenic lipid profile, disturbed blood coagulation, increased stress responsiveness and more obesity among those exposed to famine in early gestation. Women exposed to famine in early gestation also had an increased risk of breast cancer. People exposed to famine in mid gestation had more microalbuminuria and obstructive airways disease. These findings show that maternal undernutrition during gestation has important effects on health in later life, but that the effects on health depend on its timing during gestation. Especially early gestation seems to be a vulnerable period. Adequate dietary advice to women before and during pregnancy seems a promising strategy in preventing chronic diseases in future generations.

MeSH terms

  • Birth Certificates
  • Blood Pressure
  • Breast Neoplasms / epidemiology
  • Breast Neoplasms / etiology
  • Cohort Studies
  • Coronary Disease / epidemiology
  • Coronary Disease / etiology
  • Disease / etiology*
  • Female
  • Glucose Tolerance Test
  • Humans
  • Hypothalamo-Hypophyseal System / physiology
  • Kidney Function Tests
  • Male
  • Maternal Nutritional Physiological Phenomena*
  • Middle Aged
  • Netherlands / epidemiology
  • Obesity / epidemiology
  • Obesity / etiology
  • Pituitary-Adrenal System / physiology
  • Pregnancy
  • Prenatal Exposure Delayed Effects*
  • Respiratory Tract Diseases / epidemiology
  • Starvation*