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Low birth weight may have effects 60 years later

Nov. 16, 2011
Courtesy of the Academy of Finland
and World Science staff

Low birth weight and slow growth in pre-adolescence sig­nif­i­cantly in­creases the risk of poor phys­i­cal func­tion­ing at age 60, a Finn­ish study has found.

It was dis­turb­ing to dis­cov­er how far the neg­a­tive ef­fects reach in­to adult­hood, the re­search­ers said, es­pe­cially since fe­tal un­der­nu­tri­tion re­mains wide­spread in West­ern and de­vel­op­ing coun­tries.

The stu­dy al­so re­ported that the long-term neg­a­tive ef­fects of low birth­weight be­come more pro­nounced for peo­ple who are over­weight at age 11. The findings were pub­lished online Nov. 9 in the Amer­i­can Jour­nal of Ep­i­de­mi­ology

Ba­bies who are born thin lack mus­cle, said Mikaela von Bons­dorff of the Ger­on­tol­o­gy Re­search Cen­ter at the Uni­vers­ity of Jyväskylä, Fin­land, who con­ducted the re­search with col­leagues. She added that this may be be­cause in an un­dernour­ished fe­tus, brain de­vel­op­ment is pri­or­i­tized at the ex­pense of mus­cles, an idea known as the Bark­er hy­poth­e­sis.

In the stu­dy, sci­en­tists as­sessed 1,999 peo­ple at age 60 who were part of a Finn­ish da­tabase known as the Hel­sin­ki Birth Co­hort. Their birth and child­hood growth da­ta were ex­tracted from med­i­cal records and matched with these da­ta. A child wel­fare sys­tem es­tab­lished in the 1920s in Fin­land en­abled the col­lec­tion of the da­taset.


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Low birth weight and slow growth in pre-adolescence significantly increases the risk of poor physical functioning at age 60, a Finnish study has found. It was disturbing to discover how far the negative effects reach into adulthood, the researchers said, especially since fetal undernutrition remains widespread in Western and developing countries. The study, published in the American Journal of Epidemiology, also reported that the long-term negative effects of low birthweight become more pronounced for people who were are overweight by age 11. Babies who are born thin lack muscle, said Mikaela von Bonsdorff of the Gerontology Research Centre at the University of Jyväskylä, Finland, who conducted the research with colleagues. She added that this may be because in an undernourished fetus, brain development is prioritized at the expense of muscles, an idea known as the Barker hypothesis. In the study, scientists assessed 1999 people at age 60 who were part of a Finnish database known as the Helsinki Birth Cohort. Their birth and childhood growth data were extracted from medical records and matched with these data. A child welfare system established in the 1920s in Finland enabled the collection of the dataset.