Late effects of malnutrition

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Those who suffer from hunger in childhood are more susceptible to diseases for life

Childhood malnutrition weakens the body for a lifetime. This was demonstrated by researchers using Finnish church register data. Accordingly, the assumption that the body is strengthened by poor nutrition during childhood for times of need is simply wrong. Rather, adults who suffered from hunger in childhood are more susceptible to cardiovascular diseases and metabolic disorders such as diabetes mellitus in later life under conditions of excess.

Child malnutrition can cause illness later in life. There has long been a belief that malnutrition in childhood strengthens the body for times of need later in life. However, as researchers around Adam Hayward from Sheffield University found, this assumption is wrong. An analysis of data from church registers of Finnish congregations, which suffered from an extreme famine in 1867 and 1868, had the opposite effect. At that time, eight percent of the Finnish population died.

“Data on certain people from fifty years were tracked from birth to famine, where we analyzed their survival and reproductive success in terms of crop yields around their birth. We were also able to examine whether the long-term effects of early childhood nutrition varied between individuals with different socio-economic status, ”the researchers report in the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America (PNSA). According to this, women and men whose harvests were born were more likely to survive the famines than people who were born in times of famine. The well-fed children were more likely to have children as adults. "These effects were more pronounced in young people and those with low socio-economic status," the researchers continue.

A lack of nutrients in childhood in no way promotes adaptation to times of need. Rather, people who were hungry in their first years of life are even more susceptible to “prosperity diseases” such as type 2 diabetes and cardiovascular diseases, even under abundant conditions. So far, this fact has been - apparently erroneously - also due to the fact that the body was trained to use nutrients to the maximum as a result of the emergency.

Effects of malnutrition Today, every fourth child under the age of five suffers from chronic malnutrition. 80 percent of these children live in only 14 countries - Africa and Asia are most affected. This is reported by the children's aid organization UNICEF, citing the UNICEF report on the nutritional situation of children and mothers, which was presented in Dublin in April.

The permanent undersupply of nutrients therefore has far-reaching consequences, especially in the first months of life. Chronically malnourished children often suffered from cognitive impairments because the development of the brain was impaired. The children would have to cope with this damage for a lifetime, which almost always meant that they would not be able to get out of poverty. Malnutrition not only affects a child's individual ability to learn and later make a living independently, it also affects the country's economic and social progress, reports UNICEF. Since the mothers of these children also usually suffer from permanent nutrient deficiency, the babies often fall behind in the womb, which they cannot catch up after birth. About a third of toddler deaths are due to chronic malnutrition. (ag)

Picture: Dr. Klaus-Uwe Gerhardt /

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