Prenatal undernutrition and leukocyte telomere length in late adulthood: the Dutch famine birth cohort study

Am J Clin Nutr. 2015 Sep;102(3):655-60. doi: 10.3945/ajcn.115.112326. Epub 2015 Jul 15.


Background: Energy restriction in prenatal life has detrimental effects on later life health and longevity. Studies in rats have shown that the shortening of telomeres in key tissues plays an important role in this association.

Objective: The aim of the current study was to investigate leukocyte telomere length in relation to prenatal famine exposure.

Design: The Dutch famine birth cohort consists of 2414 term singleton men and women who were born between 1943 and 1947 in Amsterdam around the time of the famine. At a mean age of 68 y, telomere length and the percentage of short telomeres was assessed in a subsample of 131 cohort members, of whom 45 were born before the famine (control), 41 were exposed to famine during early gestation, and 45 were conceived after the famine (control). Median telomere length was determined in peripheral blood leukocytes by a high-throughput quantitative fluorescent in situ hybridization-based technology.

Results: Leukocyte telomere length and the percentage of short telomeres did not differ between those exposed to famine during early gestation and those unexposed during gestation. A lower socioeconomic status at birth, frequent consumption of alcohol (specifically consumption of spirits), a history of cancer, and a lower self-reported health status were significantly associated with shorter leukocyte telomere length (all P ≤ 0.03). Currently having a job was significantly associated with a smaller percentage of short telomeres (P = 0.04).

Conclusion: The results of the current study suggest that prenatal exposure to famine is not associated with the shortening of telomeres in peripheral blood leukocytes at age 68 y.

Keywords: aging; developmental programming; late life; prenatal famine; telomere.

Publication types

  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't

MeSH terms

  • Aged
  • Cohort Studies
  • Female
  • Humans
  • In Situ Hybridization, Fluorescence
  • Leukocytes / metabolism*
  • Linear Models
  • Logistic Models
  • Male
  • Malnutrition / blood*
  • Malnutrition / etiology
  • Maternal Nutritional Physiological Phenomena*
  • Netherlands
  • Pregnancy
  • Prenatal Exposure Delayed Effects / genetics*
  • Socioeconomic Factors
  • Starvation / blood*
  • Starvation / complications
  • Telomere / genetics*