Safe womb, delayed tomb

Philip J. Goscienski, M.D.

March 2010

How healthy we are in middle age might depend on what conditions were like in the nine months between our conception and our day of birth. Our genetic pattern sometimes includes a predisposition to diseases such as breast cancer and diabetes but what happens to us as we grow in our mother's womb matters as well.

This idea has been drifting around the scientific community for decades but it has become more plausible in light of recent research. It offers an explanation for a variety of chronic diseases.

Osteoporosis, the thinning of bones that occurs in roughly one in five women beyond the age of 65, has multiple causes and some of these are present before we are born. If a pregnant woman has poor bone mass because of inadequate diet and lack of exercise in her younger years, especially if she smokes, her child has a greater risk of a broken bone several decades later.

The Pima Indians of the American Southwest have an enormously high rate of type 2 diabetes. If they become pregnant after they have developed the disease their infants are at risk of complications of childbirth. The children have an abnormal sugar metabolism while in the womb and they are more likely to develop diabetes and to suffer from kidney failure at an early age. There appears to be something about abnormal sugar and insulin balance before birth that doesn't simply disappear when the baby is on its own.

High blood pressure and kidney problems develop in some premature infants when they become adults. If the baby's kidneys don't reach full maturity within the womb they don't catch up after delivery and they remain smaller than normal. Decades later that might show up as high blood pressure because the kidneys play an important role in regulating blood pressure. It can also lead to kidney failure in adult life.

We can do something about these prenatal influences. Most adolescent girls get too little physical activity during bone-forming years and more of them are becoming obese even though fully 90 percent of women of childbearing age are lacking in important nutrients such as calcium, iron, omega-3 fats and several vitamins.

When an expectant mother shows up for her first prenatal visit at the obstetrician's office it's already late in the game. Nutritional counseling belongs in the school curriculum and at every pediatric well-child visit. We can't afford to waste another generation.

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.