A review by Lumley and colleagues of famine data considered relationships between acute exposures to prenatal famine and adult physical and mental health. The results showed consistent associations between prenatal famine and adult body size, diabetes, and schizophrenia. The possible mechanism cited could be epigenetic programming during early pregnancy.
These observational studies add credence to the epigenetic studies that show that early pregnancy is a critical time where a chain of events can be initiated that ultimately will increase the risk of a disease, or create an increased susceptibility to other exposures later in the life course. For example, there is a relationship between prenatal famine exposure and diagnosis of diabetes mellitus at aged 50+years. At age 59 years Dutch adults also had less DNA methylation of the imprinted IGF2 gene compared with their unexposed same sex siblings. These changes were not seen in those exposed at the end of pregnancy.
Whilst the conditions of these famine exposures are extreme these finding provide a strong rationale for ensuring adequate nutrition during the preconceptual period lasting into early pregnancy.
Lumey L.H. et al. Prenatal Famine and Adult Health. Annu Rev Public Health 2011 ;32: