Study Links Maternal Height To Children’s Health Outcomes

Malnutrition suffered during a woman’s childhood “can adversely affect the health of her children, Harvard researchers said Tuesday,” following the release of their study in developing countries, which “found that the shortest women were substantially more likely to have children who died at an early age, who were underweight or who failed to thrive, according to a report in the Journal of the American Medical [Association]” (JAMA), the Los Angeles Times’ blog “Shots” reports.

“Height is a useful and stable marker of cumulative health,” said S.V. Subramanian of the Harvard School of Public Health, lead author of the JAMA study. “It is an indicator of the nutritional environment a person was exposed to during childhood, which shapes both the mother’s attained height and subsequent health as well as her offspring’s chances of survival or ability to grow in infancy and childhood,” Subramanian said in a statement, according to the blog (Maugh, 4/20).

The researchers “looked at health data from 54 developing countries gathered between 1991 and 2008 of nearly 3 million births to more than three quarters of a million women between the ages of 15 and 49.”  They compared the health outcomes of children born to mothers whose height ranged “from under four feet nine inches to taller than five feet three inches,” Reuters reports.

The researchers found that “children born to the shortest moms had about a 40 percent higher risk of dying during childhood than those born to the tallest mothers. The risk of death among those born to the tallest mothers was about one in 14, compared to about one in seven for those born to the shortest mothers,” the news service continues. “More pronounced discrepancies were noted in children’s failure to flourish physically. Each lower height category in the moms was associated with a ‘substantially higher’ risk of their children being underweight and having stunted growth,” Reuters writes (Myers Lowe, 4/20). 

“In terms of dying, the effects of the mother’s shortness was nearly as important as those of her having no education or the lowest income, 70% and 80%, respectively,” the Los Angeles Times’ “Shots” blog reports. “The mother’s height was twice as important as her lack of education in determining whether the child would be underweight and 50% more important than her poor income,” the blog continues (4/20).

“Because adult height ‘reflects the stressful nutritional environment of the mother in early life,’ the results could have implications for how nutrition programs are designed and targeted,” Reuters adds (4/20).

“Although the causes of childhood undernutrition are well described and exclusive breastfeeding, appropriate complementary feeding, hygiene and sanitation, and access to health care are known interventions likely to improve growth in young children, little attention has been given to the prenatal origins of childhood undernutrition,” Parul Christian of Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health writes in an accompanying JAMA editorial. “Specifically, maternal stature, overall maternal nutritional status, and the factors that give rise to them needs more emphasis, especially because the early growth failure is known to track into childhood and beyond,” Christian writes.

The study findings “call important attention to the vast challenge and potential public health value of addressing maternal undernutrition, and specifically maternal short stature, as a still-neglected approach to reducing child mortality and undernutrition in many low- and middle-income countries,” Christian writes (4/21).

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