Tara Pepper writes in Newsweek that the secret of heart disease, and other deadly diseases, lies in the womb. U.K. researcher David Barker has discovered that some diseases actually start before we’re born. Harvard’s Nurses Health Study, which started in 1976 and surveyed 121,000 women, found a 23% increase in heart disease and 80% increase in diabetes among people with low birth weights. Another study found a 40% increase in severe kidney disease among adults who weighed less than 5 ? pounds at birth.

Barker started researching health in the womb when he noticed that lifestyle changes in adults, like exercising more and eating less fatty food, didn’t change the rate of heart disease nearly as much as doctors had hoped. Using statistics, he eventually discovered that people who had low birth rates were more likely to die of heart disease. He then found the same results with people who had diabetes and kidney disease.

One reason is that smaller babies have fewer cells in basic organs like the heart and the kidney. You only make kidney cells during a brief period of before you’re born, so you’re born with all you’ll ever have. If you have a smaller kidney you’re more likely to get higher blood pressure. If you’re not getting much glucose from your mother, which is very important to a fetus, you don’t store it, but keep it in the blood so that there’s lots of it available. That works well for the baby, but in later life it causes diabetes. Also, small babies are more vulnerable to stress. If a baby isn’t growing well, its body will activate its cortisone, which is a stress response. That speeds up the maturation of organs such as the lungs, but it sets up high stress responses for life.

This is an important finding, since more premature babies are being kept alive today, and they may grow up to have major health problems. Also, fertility drugs are causing many more multiple births, and these babies are also likely to be smaller.

It turns out that it’s dangerous for mothers to diet too much even before conception. Babies don’t live off what the mother eats, they live off the mother’s body. Proteins within cells are constantly broken down and released into the mother’s blood, where they nourish the baby. Women who are thin don’t release as much from their bodies because they need it for themselves. The babies of thin women will have problems 40 or 50 years later in the way they handle sugar.

It’s important to feed babies correctly after they’re born, as well. Scientists now know that babies who are fed a dairy-based formula grow up to have higher blood pressure than babies who are breast-fed. When many of the people reaching old age right now were infants, breast feeding wasn’t fashionable, so most of them started out on milk-based formula, and this is the group having heart trouble today.

It could be that the high sodium content of cow’s milk affects the development of young babies, or the problem might be that cow’s milk is higher in fat and calories. Overfed babies, who gain too much weight early in life, are more likely to be obese and have heart disease later on.

Those of us trying to have healthy hearts through good diet, enough exercise and taking medications may still have to work at being healthy, but we no longer have to feel guilty. Doctors don?t tell us that many things about our health were predetermined before (and shortly after) we were born.

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