Our prenatal prospects: some thoughts

The “new” science of fetal orgins, as a  New York Times column by Nicholas Kristof describes, draws substantial correlations between many diseases (autism, schizophrenia, even obesity) and an infant’s uterine environment. Although research remains mixed, much of it indicates that life before birth has a substantial impact on later life course.

(FYI: Barker and colleagues were the first to describe this idea as the “fetal origins hypothesis“, back in 1995).

The uterine environment appears to affect how our genes express themselves (otherwise known as “epigenetic modification”). For example, stress experienced during pregnancy may actually predispose individuals to poor health outcomes. Consider a young woman, pregnant for the first time and living on Chicago’s south side. Her 9-to-5 may expose her to dangerous chemicals. A 90-minute commute may exacerbate this stress. She may find it difficult to quit smoking, eat healthily, or remember to take her prenatal vitamins as a result — compounding latent health risks for both herself and her unborn infant.

Here’s the deal. When we talk about the life course, we move beyond individual health to acknowledge the important impact of our environments — historical, economic, and social — on our health. Proponents of life course theory attempt to acknowledge all facets of health (physical, mental, spiritual) and work to explore the interactions between our biology and the world that surrounds us.

This past November, the Maternal and Child Health Bureau commissioned a concept paper on the lifecourse framework. It’s an important document that outlines LCT’s major concepts and ties them to MCH goals. You can read the full text here, in pdf form: http://mchb.hrsa.gov/training/documents/LifeCourseResourceSheet9-2010.pdf

For more on fetal origins and life course theory, check these links out: