Early life undernutrition and adult height: The Dutch famine of 1944–45

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Abstract

Current research shows strong associations between adult height and several positive outcomes such as higher cognitive skills, better earning capacity, increased chance of marriage and better health. It is therefore relevant to investigate the determinants of adult height. There is mixed evidence on the effects of undernutrition during early life on adult height. Therefore, our study aims at assessing the impact of undernutrition during gestation and at ages younger than 15 on adult height.

We used data from the Longitudinal Aging Study Amsterdam. Exposure to undernutrition was determined by place of residence during the Dutch famine during World War II. Included respondents were born between 15 May 1930 and 1 November 1945 and lived in the northern part of the Netherlands during the famine period (n = 1008). Exposure data was collected using interviews and questionnaires and adult height was measured. Exposed and non-exposed respondents were classified in the age categories pregnancy- age 1 (n = 85), age 1–5 (n = 323), age 6–10 (n = 326) or puberty (age 11–15, n = 274). Linear regression analyses were used to test the associations of adult height with exposure. The robustness of the regression results was tested with sensitivity analyses.

In the models adjusted for covariates (i.e., number of siblings, education level of parents, and year of birth) and stratified by gender, adult height was significantly shorter for females exposed at ages younger than 1 (−4.45 cm [−7.44–−1.47]) or at ages younger than 2 (−4.08 cm [−7.20–−0.94]). The results for males were only borderline significant for exposure under age 1 (−3.16 [−6.82–0.49]) and significant for exposure under age 2 (−4.09 cm [−7.20–−0.96]). Exposure to the Dutch famine at other ages was not consistently significantly associated with adult height.

In terms of public health relevance, the study’s results further underpin the importance of supporting pregnant women and young parents exposed to undernutrition.

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