Prenatal Undernutrition and Physical Function and Frailty at the Age of 68 Years: The Dutch Famine Birth Cohort Study

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There is evidence suggesting that the aging process has its origins in utero. We have previously shown that prenatal exposure to the Dutch famine is associated with chronic noncommunicable diseases and poorer cognitive function in men and women and increased mortality in women. We investigated whether prenatal undernutrition during early gestation is associated with decreased physical function in later life.


Between November 2012 and September 2013, we have studied a random subsample of 150 members of the Dutch famine birth cohort at the age of 68 years, of which 49 were exposed to prenatal undernutrition. In this observational study, we measured indicators of physical function including grip strength and the short physical performance battery. We composed categories of frailty, according to the Fried frailty scale. We also assessed self-reported activity and self-perceived health.


Men, but not women, exposed to prenatal undernutrition had significantly lower grip strength (B = −4.2kg; 95% confidence interval: −8.2 to −0.3) and a lower physical performance score (B = −0.8 points; 95% confidence interval: −1.5 to 0.0) than unexposed men, independent of relevant confounders. There were no differences in frailty, self-reported activity, or self-perceived health between exposed and unexposed groups.


Our study results suggest that prenatal undernutrition is associated with decreased physical function in later life in men, but not in women. Our findings provide further evidence for the hypothesis that prenatal undernutrition may lead to an accelerated aging process in humans. We currently do not have sufficient power to detect effects on frailty.

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