Long-Term Effects of Malnutrition

Sep 20, 2011 by

Many a teenager slips into dangerous eating behavior patterns in the hopes of becoming thin. Experts report that hospitalizations for eating disorders are showing that younger and younger children are being admitted, revealing that malnutrition is a serious problem during important years for bone and cardiovascular development.

While these cases often result from a combination of environmental and biological causes, there have been situations in which large groups of people were forced into severe malnutrition because of oppressive conditions.

A study published in the European Heart Journal examined the effects of the Dutch famine, which occurred from 1944 to 1945. During the famine, official rations were decreased to as low as 400 to 800 calories per day as the country waited for liberation from the Nazi army.

The researchers explain that the unfortunate conditions of the famine produced a “natural experiment” in history. This situation gave a unique opportunity to examine the long-term effects of acute malnutrition during the important developmental years of childhood, adolescence and young adulthood among young girls and young women who were previously well-nourished.

The researchers divided the participants into three groups, including those who had been “severely” exposed to famine, those who had been “hardly” exposed, and those whose exposure was somewhere between the two extremes.

The researchers used Cox proportional hazard regression models to explore the effects of famine on coronary heart disease and stroke on each specific age group. There were adjustments made for potential confounders, such as the age at which they were exposed to famine, smoking and level of education.

The findings indicated that those who were severely exposed were 27 percent more likely to have coronary heart disease when compared to those who were not exposed. The figures were more drastic for younger participants, with risk increasing to 38 percent in those between the ages of 10 and 17 at the beginning of the famine period. The researchers noted that stress experienced during the famine may also have contributed to behaviors that impacted the risk of heart disease as each participant aged.

The findings are significant because they provide evidence for the risk of coronary heart disease in those who are exposed to a period of malnutrition during the important childhood, adolescent and young adult years. The study also highlighted the significantly increased risk for those between the ages of 10 and 17 during a period of malnutrition.