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Professor David Barker and his colleagues at Southampton University have spent a number of years conducting research and have concluded that lifestyle and genetic factors are not, as previously thought, a decent predictor of future health. They believe there are a number of crucial stages which can have a far greater effect on a child’s development, many of which fall while the child is still in the womb.

From chronic conditions such as heart disease, cancer or diabetes right through to general life expectancy and weight control some scientists have been baffled as to what makes certain people more susceptible than others. Although some of these conditions may result from hardening of the arteries, rising blood pressure or insulin resistance or can be affected by lifestyle choices, this doesn’t provide the whole answer.

Genes and a predisposition to certain conditions are another possibility, but these are unlikely to explain why coronary heart disease was a rare occurrence 100 years ago but now it’s the commonest cause of death across the world.

With all these ideas about what could be the cause of all these illnesses, the search for ways to prevent them has largely failed. Soon there will be 250 million people with a form of diabetes worldwide, with many of them not being overweight or inactive. One of the most telling studies of the causes of diabetes was carried out in rural India among villages living what many people would consider a perfect lifestyle; vegetarian diet, physically active and thin. Yet diabetes was rife amongst the villagers.

Long term studies there and elsewhere have shown that people who develop a chronic disease often grew differently to other people in the womb and during childhood, with the birth weights tending to be toward the lower end of what would be considered the normal range.

The Southampton University team believe all can be affected by the development of a child within the first 9 months in the womb and the first 2 years of life. An unborn baby’s weight will be affected by poor nutrition for the mother as this will impact how well the placenta works while other factors such as smoking, alcohol, drugs and stress can also cause problems for a child’s development.

Like all other living creatures, our development in the womb and for sometime after birth is dictated by our environment and, in particular, the nutrition we receive. At the point of conception, you were a blank canvas that was painted by the dynamics of your genes and the nutrition you did or didn’t receive. Malnutrition and other adverse factors can slow foetal’ growth, which is why chronic disease is associated with low birth weight.

Professor Barker has shown that on average, a baby weighing less than 5lb 7oz is twice as likely to die of a heart attack as one born at 9lb 7oz. It is thought that when food is scarce in the womb, it is channelled to the developing brain at the expense of the development of the heart. The pancreatic cells which make insulin also develop in the womb and therefore it is possible that an increased risk of diabetes may also develop before the baby is even born.

History can actually provide a real-life example of how such conditions can affect the human body. In the final stages of the Second World War, the Netherlands suffered a five-month famine with a resulting fall in the average weight of babies born at the time. Lifetime studies of some of these babies, now adults well into their 60’s show that they have suffered greater risk of high blood pressure, raised cholesterol, heart disease, diabetes and breast cancer than their brothers and sisters.

As our bodies can never be perfect, so the body creates a hierarchy of priorities. The brain is at the top of the list of development, whereas organs such as the kidneys and lungs, which do not function in the womb, are at the bottom. For most organs there is a critical period during development when a system or organ has to mature. These periods are brief; they occur at different times for different systems and can be as short as 24 hours; and for most systems they occur in the womb. Only the brain, liver and immune system continue to develop after birth. If an organ fails to mature during that critical period, it has permanent consequences. For example, the capacity of the kidneys to do their job is determined at 36 weeks of gestation, and measured by the number of function units – nephrons – in the organ.

Nephrons are good because they can reduce the risk of high blood pressure. Some people have nearly three times as many, and the amount was determined in the womb. For the baby still in the womb, the kidneys are low priority organs as the mother serves as the baby’s kidneys until birth. The unborn baby’s development depends more on the food stored in it’s mother’s body and the way her body handles food, which is a product of her lifetime nutrition – this will decide the baby’s health later on in life.

To give your baby the best start in life, the best thing to do is to make sure that the unborn baby is well catered for and receives a decent amount of nutrients through a well balanced diet. What you don’t want to be doing is living with the worry that your child is going to grow up struggling with its health. If you are an expat, William Russell can back you up by covering you and family with a comprehensive international health insurance policy, just in case something does happen.

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