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Fetal Programming of Adult Disease: Implications for Prenatal Care

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Abstract

The obesity epidemic, including a marked increase in the prevalence of obesity among pregnant women, represents a critical public health problem in the United States and throughout the world. Over the past two decades, it has been increasingly recognized that the risk of adult health disorders, particularly metabolic syndrome, can be markedly influenced by prenatal and infant environmental exposures (ie, developmental programming). Low birth weight, together with infant catch-up growth, is associated with a significant risk of adult obesity and cardiovascular disease, as well as adverse effects on pulmonary, renal, and cerebral function. Conversely, exposure to maternal obesity or high birth weight also represents an increased risk for childhood and adult obesity. In addition, fetal exposure to select chemicals (eg, phytoestrogens) or environmental pollutants (eg, tobacco smoke) may affect the predisposition to adult disease. Animal models have confirmed human epidemiologic findings and provided insight into putative programming mechanisms, including altered organ development, cellular signaling responses, and epigenetic modifications (ie, control of gene expression without modification of DNA sequence). Prenatal care is transitioning to incorporate goals of optimizing maternal, fetal, and neonatal health to prevent or reduce adult-onset diseases. Guidelines regarding optimal pregnancy nutrition and weight gain, management of low- and high-fetal-weight pregnancies, use of maternal glucocorticoids, and newborn feeding strategies, among others, have yet to fully integrate long-term consequences on adult health.

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