Background: Famine provides quasi-experimental conditions for testing the hypothesis of "programming" health effects by poor nutrition in early life. It remains uncertain whether early life exposure to famine increases the risk of hypertension in adulthood. There is a lack of data on the relative impact of exposure to famine during fetal development versus infancy (<2 years postnatal). We sought to assess the impact of exposure to the 1959-1961 Chinese Great Famine (the largest in human history) during fetal development and infancy on the risks of hypertension, short stature and obesity in adulthood.
Methodology/principal findings: We conducted a retrospective cohort study of 12,065 adults (46-53 years of age) born 1957-1964 in the Zhongshan and Nanhai municipalities of Guangdong province, China. Adjusting for socio-demographic and lifestyle characteristics, as compared to subjects who were unexposed to famine, the risk of hypertension was not significantly elevated in subjects exposed to famine during fetal development only overall, but was 1.36-fold higher in those exposed during the first trimester of pregnancy only [adjusted odds ratio (OR) 1.36 (95% confidence intervals 1.03-1.79)], 1.83-fold higher in those exposed during infancy only [adjusted OR 1.83 (1.61-2.08)], and 1.31-fold higher in those exposed during both fetal development and infancy [adjusted OR 1.31 (1.14-1.51)]. Exposure to famine during infancy increased the risk of short stature. Early life exposure to famine did not increase the risk of obesity.
Conclusions/significance: Exposure to the Chinese Great Famine during the first trimester of pregnancy only, or during infancy only, or during both fetal development and infancy increased the risk of hypertension in adulthood, suggesting an important role of changes in exposure to famine during fetal development and from prenatal to early postnatal life in developmental "programming" cardiovascular disease risk.