Health: Children of India

What’s Eating India?

Will improving diets prove to be a curse rather than a ­blessing for India’s newly prosperous ­population? A new study could tell.

Scientists from the University of Southampton are exploring the link between low birth weight and diseases in later life to help improve the health of young people in India. They are examining the impact that low birth weight and infant weight may have on the development of type 2 diabetes and cardiovascular diseases in adult life. Importantly, such effects are most exaggerated when faced with over-nutrition in later life.

The study could resolve some of the uncertainties about the causes of chronic illness, offering nutritional information relevant to developing and industrialised countries as a means of preventing chronic later-life disease.

This is the latest stage of a study of 400 children born in the King Edward Memorial Hospital in Pune which started in 1993. The youngsters, who are all 21, have been monitored in childhood and adolescence using blood tests, body composition measurements and tests for diabetes and this is the first time they have been studied as adults. 

As the study progresses, the findings will be related back to birth size, infant growth and nutritional diet. With female subjects, an ultrasound will also be used to check for polycystic ovary syndrome (PCOS), a complex condition that affects the ovaries and is a leading cause of infertility. 

Little data are available from developing countries, where record keeping of birth weight data has not been a priority. Arguably however, such countries are at the greatest risk from the mismatch of early nutritional deprivation and later nutritional affluence.

The study, funded by the Wellcome Trust and the Medical Research Council (MRC), is co-ordinated by Dr Anand Pandit and Dr Chittaranjan Yajnik at the KEM Hospital, Pune, and Professor Caroline Fall from the MRC Epidemiology Resource Centre at the University of Southampton. 

Professor Fall comments: “This study, in which the children have had high-quality serial measurements of growth, biochemistry and body composition, will fill many of the gaps left by other studies. It focuses on a population in rapid economic and nutritional transition, but the results are likely to have global relevance.”

At the BA Festival of Science in Liverpool this week, leading medical scientists warned that the ‘mismatch’ between modern urban lifestyles and inherited genes is becoming a major issue in developing countries where people have to adapt to nutritional changes very fast. 

Professor Mark Hanson, director of the Institute of Developmental Sciences at the University of Southampton, said: “We are now seeing the epidemic of diabetes and cardiovascular disease in parts of India which have changed fast, and it affects people at a much earlier age and who are not fat by western standards. Their diet was traditionally poor and exercise levels high – but as rural people move into cities they are increasingly mismatched. The economic consequences of this for developing countries such as India, China and in Africa will be horrendous.”

November 2008

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