Pregnant in the Stone Age

Philip J. Goscienski, M.D.

October 2008

Pregnancy among the primitive sounds like a scary scenario but the reality may not have been so bad. Some of the more dangerous complications of pregnancy are very recent and are of our own making.

Common opinion holds that Stone Age girls became pregnant while early teenagers but the onset of ovulation among modern hunter-gatherers doesn't occur until about 17 years of age and the average age at first pregnancy is 18 years or later. We have no reason to believe that it was different during the Stone Age. In the year 2008 the ability to become pregnant begins at age 13 when some of the body's systems, especially the bony skeleton, have not really matured.

Today's young women don't eat all the nutrients that they need to get them through a pregnancy and the breastfeeding years that follow. Just in the past 35 years their milk intake has gone down as their consumption of soft drinks has gone up. Very few of them eat the recommended amount of fruits and vegetables that are so rich in antioxidants and folic acid. A deficiency of folic acid, which is abundant in green leafy vegetables, leads to congenital defects of the brain, spinal cord, face and heart. Since the government mandated that makers of grain-based foods must add folate to their products the incidence of brain and spinal cord defects has dropped significantly.

Obesity and type 2 diabetes are modern epidemics and more women than ever of childbearing age suffer from both. In a recent 20-year period the incidence of obesity has more than tripled. The obese pregnant woman is malnourished in spite of her weight. She is more likely to need Caesarean section, have a long labor, experience convulsions, acquire an infection, bleed severely after delivery and develop a serious, life-threatening condition called deep-vein thrombosis. Severe obesity, which currently afflicts 5 percent of the U.S. population, magnifies these risks.

Obstetricians have to deal with more pregnant diabetic women than ever. These patients have a high rate of Caesarean section and complications of delivery and their infants face a risk of dying that is 5 times as high as that of infants of normal mothers.

Infections of various sorts probably ended lots of pregnancies and mothers' lives thousands of years ago but they were sporadic, not epidemic. In a small band of Stone Age hunter-gatherers those conditions simply didn't exist. They had no sexually transmitted diseases, including HIV, which maim and kill babies today.

About 25 percent of pregnant women smoke during pregnancy. That doesn't affect mothers much but it certainly puts their babies at risk. Prematurity, stillbirth and sudden infant death syndrome are more common among infants whose mothers smoke.

It doesn't take megascience to reverse these destructive, costly trends. Weight control and good nutrition aren't beyond our reach. Neither has to be perfect to make a huge difference.

Philip J. Goscienski, M.D. is the author of Health Secrets of the Stone Age, Better Life Publishers 2005. Contact him at drphil@stoneagedoc.com.