Study provides evidence against the fetal origins of cancer and cardiovascular disease

March 27, 2015

March 27, 2015--A study by researchers at Columbia University's Mailman School of Public Health and colleagues in the Netherlands evaluated the relationship between nutritional conditions in very early life and adult health, and found that famine exposure during the first pregnancy trimester was associated with increases in mortality from a variety of causes other than cancer or cardiovascular disease.

This is the first study to quantify the possible long-term effects of nutrition deprivation at different stages of pregnancy and long-term mortality from causes of death coded by the current International Statistical Classification of Diseases.

Findings are published in the American Journal of Epidemiology.

The study evaluated how famine exposure--defined as 900 calories or less per day--during the Dutch Hunger Winter of 1944-1945 at different stages of pregnancy affected mortality through age 63.

Of more than 41,000 men born in the Netherlands from January 1944 to December 1947 and examined at age 18 years for military service in the Netherlands, 22,952 were born at the time of the Dutch Famine in six famine-stricken cities. A total of 5,011 deaths recorded during the follow-up period included 1,938 deaths (39 percent) from cancer, 1,040 (21 percent) from heart disease, and 1,418 (29 percent) from other natural causes, including diseases of the circulatory system (excluding heart disease) and diabetes. In addition, there were 523 deaths (10 percent) from external causes, such as transportation accidents, and intentional self-harm. The researchers adjusted for father's occupation, religion, education, body mass index, and fitness for military service.

"The circumstances of the Dutch Hunger Winter of 1944-1945, with civilian starvation caused by the conditions of World War II, offer a unique opportunity to study the possible fetal origins of common diseases and adult health and critical periods in gestation," said L.H. Lumey, MD, PhD, Mailman School associate professor of Epidemiology and lead author. Prior studies by the Mailman School of Public Health and other institutions have reported an increase in body mass index and a prevalence of type 2 diabetes in both men and women after prenatal famine exposure, but until now results have been inconsistent with respect to cardiovascular disease.

"The robustness of the patterns we observed in the different control groups points to very early gestation as the period when the fetus is especially sensitive to the environment. It also suggests that early childhood exposure to the famine for people born just before the famine had no impact on long-term mortality in this population," according to Lumey.

Continuing Research

Further follow-up of the participants will provide more accurate risk estimates of mortality from specific causes of death after nutritional disturbances during gestation and very early life.

"These are the first study results of a very long-term project. The men in our study population were 63 years of age at follow-up and 85 percent of the cohort is still alive. They will now be entering a period of rapidly increasing mortality," said Lumey, "and this will provide significantly more study power in the future to detect small but important associations between famine exposure by stage of gestation and even more narrowly defined causes of death."

With a recent renewal of funding from the National Institutes of Health, the study will soon be expanded to include socio-economic outcomes (employment, wages, and disability benefits) for analysis with state-of-the-art epidemiologic and econometric methods. "Our new analyses will integrate currently separate research traditions from medical and social sciences and are likely to lead to a better understanding of 'fetal programming' and its implications," said Lumey.

The expanded study will include as co-investigator Nobel Laureate James Heckman from the University of Chicago to look at long-term effects of early deprivation on human capital outcomes.
Co-authors are Peter Ekamper, Frans van Poppel, and Govert E. Bijwaard of the Netherlands Interdisciplinary Demographic Institute, Royal Netherlands Academy of Arts and Sciences/University of Groningen, The Hague, the Netherlands; Frans van Poppel, Utrecht University, Utrecht, the Netherlands; and Aryeh D. Stein, Emory University Rollins School of Public Health.

The study was supported by the National Institutes of Health (RO1-AG028593). There were no reported conflicts of interest.

About Columbia University's Mailman School of Public Health

Founded in 1922, Columbia University's Mailman School of Public Health pursues an agenda of research, education, and service to address the critical and complex public health issues affecting New Yorkers, the nation and the world. The Mailman School is the third largest recipient of NIH grants among schools of public health. Its over 450 multi-disciplinary faculty members work in more than 100 countries around the world, addressing such issues as preventing infectious and chronic diseases, environmental health, maternal and child health, health policy, climate change & health, and public health preparedness. It is a leader in public health education with over 1,300 graduate students from more than 40 nations pursuing a variety of master's and doctoral degree programs. The Mailman School is also home to numerous world-renowned research centers including ICAP (formerly the International Center for AIDS Care and Treatment Programs) and the Center for Infection and Immunity. For more information, please visit

Columbia University's Mailman School of Public Health

Related Cancer Articles from Brightsurf:

New blood cancer treatment works by selectively interfering with cancer cell signalling
University of Alberta scientists have identified the mechanism of action behind a new type of precision cancer drug for blood cancers that is set for human trials, according to research published in Nature Communications.

UCI researchers uncover cancer cell vulnerabilities; may lead to better cancer therapies
A new University of California, Irvine-led study reveals a protein responsible for genetic changes resulting in a variety of cancers, may also be the key to more effective, targeted cancer therapy.

Breast cancer treatment costs highest among young women with metastic cancer
In a fight for their lives, young women, age 18-44, spend double the amount of older women to survive metastatic breast cancer, according to a large statewide study by the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.

Cancer mortality continues steady decline, driven by progress against lung cancer
The cancer death rate declined by 29% from 1991 to 2017, including a 2.2% drop from 2016 to 2017, the largest single-year drop in cancer mortality ever reported.

Stress in cervical cancer patients associated with higher risk of cancer-specific mortality
Psychological stress was associated with a higher risk of cancer-specific mortality in women diagnosed with cervical cancer.

Cancer-sniffing dogs 97% accurate in identifying lung cancer, according to study in JAOA
The next step will be to further fractionate the samples based on chemical and physical properties, presenting them back to the dogs until the specific biomarkers for each cancer are identified.

Moffitt Cancer Center researchers identify one way T cell function may fail in cancer
Moffitt Cancer Center researchers have discovered a mechanism by which one type of immune cell, CD8+ T cells, can become dysfunctional, impeding its ability to seek and kill cancer cells.

More cancer survivors, fewer cancer specialists point to challenge in meeting care needs
An aging population, a growing number of cancer survivors, and a projected shortage of cancer care providers will result in a challenge in delivering the care for cancer survivors in the United States if systemic changes are not made.

New cancer vaccine platform a potential tool for efficacious targeted cancer therapy
Researchers at the University of Helsinki have discovered a solution in the form of a cancer vaccine platform for improving the efficacy of oncolytic viruses used in cancer treatment.

American Cancer Society outlines blueprint for cancer control in the 21st century
The American Cancer Society is outlining its vision for cancer control in the decades ahead in a series of articles that forms the basis of a national cancer control plan.

Read More: Cancer News and Cancer Current Events is a participant in the Amazon Services LLC Associates Program, an affiliate advertising program designed to provide a means for sites to earn advertising fees by advertising and linking to