Prenatal stress due to a natural disaster predicts adiposity in childhood: the Iowa Flood Study

J Obes. 2015;2015:570541. doi: 10.1155/2015/570541. Epub 2015 Mar 19.


Prenatal stress can affect lifelong physical growth, including increased obesity risk. However, human studies remain limited. Natural disasters provide models of independent stressors unrelated to confounding maternal characteristics. We assessed degree of objective hardship and subjective distress in women pregnant during severe flooding. At ages 2.5 and 4 years we assessed body mass index (BMI), subscapular plus triceps skinfolds (SS + TR, an index of total adiposity), and SS : TR ratio (an index of central adiposity) in their children (n = 106). Hierarchical regressions controlled first for several potential confounds. Controlling for these, flood exposure during early gestation predicted greater BMI increase from age 2.5 to 4, as well as total adiposity at 2.5. Greater maternal hardship and distress due to the floods, as well as other nonflood life events during pregnancy, independently predicted greater increase in total adiposity between 2.5 and 4 years. These results support the hypothesis that prenatal stress increases adiposity beginning in childhood and suggest that early gestation is a sensitive period. Results further highlight the additive effects of maternal objective and subjective stress, life events, and depression, emphasizing the importance of continued studies on multiple, detailed measures of maternal mental health and experience in pregnancy and child growth.

Publication types

  • Research Support, N.I.H., Extramural
  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't

MeSH terms

  • Adiposity*
  • Adult
  • Body Mass Index
  • Child, Preschool
  • Depression / complications
  • Depression / epidemiology
  • Depression / physiopathology*
  • Disasters*
  • Female
  • Floods*
  • Humans
  • Iowa / epidemiology
  • Male
  • Maternal Behavior
  • Pregnancy
  • Prenatal Exposure Delayed Effects / epidemiology
  • Prenatal Exposure Delayed Effects / physiopathology*
  • Risk Factors
  • Skinfold Thickness