Monday, March 07, 2011

Our first nine months are shaping the rest of our life

Scientists can now predict health of a person even before his birth. By calculating all factors that are shaping the baby in the stomach, they can determine who will later be obese, diabetic, prone to heart attacks, cancer and other diseases.

What makes us the way we are? Why are some people predisposed to be tense, obese, or asthma sufferers? How is it that some of us are prone to heart attack, diabetes or high blood pressure?

Type and amount of food you received in the womb, pollutants, drugs and infections to whom you have been exposed during your mother's pregnancy, your mother's health, stress level and state of mind while she was pregnant - all these factors shape you as a baby and continue to influence you for the rest of your life. 

This is a provocative statement of the theory known as fetal origin, whose pioneers say that nine months of pregnancy determine our later life and permanently affect brain development and functioning of organs like heart and liver. They claim that conditions encountered in the womb shape our susceptibility to disease, our appetite and metabolism, our intelligence and temperament. 

In the literature on the subject, which exploded over the past 10 years, you can find references on the fetal origins of cancer, cardiovascular diseases, allergies, asthma, hypertension, diabetes, obesity, mental illness…They are even explaining the causes of diseases associated with older age, arthritis, osteoporosis and dementia.

Most of what pregnant woman encounters in her daily life - the air she breathes, food and drink she consumes, chemicals to which she is exposed, even the emotions she feels – are, in some way, shared with the fetus. The fetus receives all of these influences and makes them a part of its flesh and blood.

Two decades ago, a British physician named David Barker, noticed odd correlations on a map: the poorest regions in England and Wales are the ones with the highest rates of heart disease. After comparing the health of some 15,000 individuals with their birth weight, he revealed an unexpected link between low weight at birth - a common indicator of poor prenatal nutrition - and heart disease in middle age. Faced with inadequate nutrition, concluded Barker, the fetus diverts nutrients to its most important organ, the brain, and skimps on other parts of the body - the debt that is paid later in the form of a weakened heart.

One study that was conducted at Harvard showed that mothers, who gain too much weight during pregnancy, increase the risk that their child will be obese already in its third year. Another study has shown that this relation is present even in adolescence.

During pregnancy, women with high blood sugar levels hinder the development of fetus’s metabolism, and thus create a predisposition to diabetes and obesity. This was determined with a research conducted over Pima Indians in the reservation in Arizona, which have the highest percentage of type 2 diabetes (metabolic disease) in the world. Studies have shown that the cause of this is prenatal experience, or, to be exact, high blood sugar levels in mothers during pregnancy.

Frederica P. Perera, Director of the Columbia Center for Children’s Environmental Health, became interested in the effects of polluted air on the fetus some 30 years ago. Perera’s research was associated with exposure to polluted air during pregnancy, something that affects the number of adverse birth outcomes, including premature birth, low birth weight and heart disorders. One of her most memorable studies was the one from 1998, when more than 500 pregnant women, from Upper Manhattan and South Bronx, wore identical black backpacks at all time, for two days. Inside each backpack was a device that was constantly monitoring air pollution levels. When babies were born, blood analysis from the umbilical cord showed that 40 percent of them had subtle DNA damages, and this is associated with increased risk of cancer. Further analysis revealed that these children were more than two times slower in learning at the age of 3, had less points when they enrolled in school at the age of 5, and less points on IQ tests than children who were exposed to less polluted air when they were in the womb.

During similar researches, scientists came to believe that the conditions in the womb affect not only our physical health, but also the intelligence, temperament, even sanity.

The evidences show that pregnant women, who are exposed to starvation or extreme stress, deliver children with higher risk of schizophrenia. In the mid-20th century, inhabitants of the province of Anhui in China suffered from a severe starvation. Individuals who were born to women who suffered from hunger had two times more chances to suffer from schizophrenia than those who were born in another period.

Catherine Monk, a professor of psychiatry at Columbia University, says that mental state of pregnant women may shape the psyche of a child. In fact, Monk and her colleagues have, in a way, "put the fetus on the couch". In her laboratory, they attached devices, that are measure breathing, heart rate, blood pressure, excitement, and heart rate of fetuses, to depressed and anxious pregnant women on one side and pregnant women with normal mood on the other side. Then they subjected these women to mental exercises. All women showed signs of physiological stress when they were answering on the questions during this test, but only fetuses of depressed and distressed women displayed their own disturbances. “This difference suggests that these fetuses are more sensitive to stress. This kind of research takes us back to the original question, when did we became what we are now” - says Monk.

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