Infants who suffer from malnutrition are more likely to have poorer physical health when they grow up.
Research also finds more emotional problems, including anxiety and attention deficit disorder.
But even as the negative long-term impacts of infant malnutrition become clearer to scientists, Dr. Janina Galler is working to push the field of study even further.
“We have been following children in the island of Barbados who were born between 1967 and 1972 and who had moderate to severe malnutrition as infants in the first year of life and a control group of children who were classmates of these children, and were from the same socio-economic groups and same families, but did not suffer from malnutrition,” says Galler, a child psychiatrist and neuroscientist at Harvard.
She’s been tracking these two groups of children and measuring a variety of health variables.
And now that many of those children have children of their own, Galler is beginning to look at outcomes for the next generation.
Her preliminary findings are eye-opening.
“And we have now found in the first group of children we’ve looked at in the next generation, that similarly, they also have a higher prevalence of attention deficits than the next generation offspring of our health control group.”
Higher rates of ADD, and also of obesity, just like their parents, even though this second generation never experienced malnutrition.
Galler cautions that the study is far from complete, but this early work is helping to show just how long-lasting malnutrition’s impact can be.
There is a theory for why this may be happening: epigenetics, the process in which outside factors--stress, trauma, malnutrition-- impact the genes in our bodies.
"The genes themselves don’t change, but what the genes do changes,” says Galler.
Malnutrition doesn’t alter the parents’ DNA. But it may change how DNA directs our cells to behave.
And that change in direction could be passed down to future generations.
Fighting The Effects
At Child Health Services, a health clinic for at-risk children in Manchester, 4-year old Jazelle Raymond is in for a check-up with her pediatrician, Susan McKeown.
“Okay, come over here Jazelle and we’ll check your weight. Stand up here and see the numbers. Come on…”
Jazelle, a healthy, playful child dutifully steps up to the scale.
“Look at you. 35.6. Terrific!” says McKeown.
Elizabeth Raymond, Jazelle’s mother, is a 25-year old home health worker who grew up near the clinic.
Though she didn’t experience the severe malnutrition of the research group in Barbados, Elizabeth did live in a house with food shortages.
“I like to block out some stuff when I was growing up because when I was growing up it was really, really tough,” says Elizabeth.
“And so I have blocked out a lot of situations in my life. The refrigerator was really empty. My mom had five children, but she only had custody of four of them, so it was really hard to feed us. You know, to clothe us. It was really hard back then.”
Even milder cases of malnutrition, or chronic under-nutrition, can have long lasting impacts on health. So Elizabeth and Doctor McKeown go over ways to make sure that 4-year old Jazelle has a healthy diet.
Child Health Services’ clinic works to make sure not just the physical needs of children are met, but also the broader health of the family.
And in family-trees where malnutrition or under-nutrition is present, this is vital, because Doctor Janina Galler says with proper comprehensive care, some of the cross-generational impacts may actually be reversible. But she cautions that change won’t come rapidly.
“Our work in particular in the Barbados has really demonstrated that there is no quick fix.”
Galler says even after 40-plus years of research, more work on the topic is needed.