Cognitive decline can start in the womb in malnourished pregnancies

September 22, 2010

One of the conditions that most frightens us, and has seen such a rapid increase in the last 50 years, is Alzheimer’s with its accompanying cognitive decline. Now there is an interesting new approach based on a recent retrospective study that seems to indicate that poor or inadequate nutrition during the early part of pregnancy appears to accelerate cognitive decline in later life for the baby.

This work has been based on a study of people exposed to severe prenatal malnutrition in the Netherlands during World War II, but I believe also has great significance for the increasing number of people in the West who are on nutritionally poor diets. This was a regression analysis of almost 300 men and women born in Amsterdam during a severe food shortage in the winter of 1944 to 1945 and what the researchers found was that those conceived during that period (and considered to be exposed to famine in utero) performed significantly worse when tested for selective attention at ages 56 to 59.

During the winter of 1944 and 1945, a severe food shortage struck the western Netherlands as a result of a German embargo on food transport in response to a Dutch railway strike intended to hamper German troop movements. Food rations among this normally well-nourished population rapidly fell to as little as 400 to 800 calories per person during the five to six months of famine.

Susanne R. de Rooij, PhD, of the University of Amsterdam, led the study and she hypothesized that because the Dutch group had previously associated prenatal exposure to famine with coronary heart disease and diabetes — both aging-related chronic diseases — that this early exposure may also lead to premature age-related cognitive decline.

Indeed, they found on regression analysis that exposed individuals performed significantly worse in cognitive function tests than those who had not suffered this nutritional devastation. The study subjects were 56 to 59 years of age and undertook a general intelligence test, a perceptual motor-learning task, a memory task, and a selective attention task.

The participants did no worse than the control group on any of the tests except for that of selective attention. The researchers have speculated that those exposed to malnutrition during the first part of pregnancy are most vulnerable and a possible explanation is because of the effect of malnutrition on the development of the central nervous system, which occurs early in gestation. Another possibility is that the cognitive decline reflects vascular damage, which is supported by the researchers’ previous finding that famine exposure was associated with dyslipidemia and coronary heart disease.

Why these findings affect all of us:

This is not a definitive study, but I do think it’s worth paying attention to. The effect of nutrition on development throughout life is well known and I, along with many others interested in natural health, definitely see a link between the increase in conditions such as Alzheimer’s and the worsening dietary habits in the West.

We know from previous research that the vitamin and mineral content of food has been seriously depleted by modern farming methods and the overuse of pesticides and antibiotics in the animal food chain. Much of what we eat is nutritionally barren, and an addiction to fast foods, sugar and empty calories is leading to the current generation, who are the parents of the future, passing on their own nutritional deficiencies to their children.

Those who are trying to start a family know that the best advice they are given is to make themselves as healthy as possible in order to have a truly healthy baby. I have previously touched on the decline in both numbers and potency of the current generation’s sperm due to the environmental effect of such things as xenoestrogens and we also know that whatever the mother takes into her body during pregnancy will pass through the placenta to the baby. A generation reared on Diet Coke and McDonald’s are not essentially giving their unborn child the best start in life.


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