A study using historical data found that the offspring of mothers who endure famine during pregnancy have a higher risk of mental health issues in later life.

Pregnant women close up black and whiteShare on Pinterest
A new study looks at malnutrition and unborn children’s future mental health.

To a certain extent, what a pregnant mother experiences, so does her unborn child.

However, investigating the effects of adverse life events on a pregnant woman’s offspring can be challenging. The studies need long follow-ups, and, of course, there is no ethical way that pregnant women can be put under experimental duress.

Recently, researchers set out to uncover whether or not malnutrition during pregnancy would impact the future mental health of women’s offspring. To gain insight, they poured over historical data from the Dutch famine of 1944–1945.

During the last stage of World War Two, cities in the west of Holland were cut off from supplies. Throughout the majority of the war, the availability of food remained relatively constant, but in October 1944, it began to fall.

Daily rations dropped below 1,000 calories in the second half of November 1944, and then to fewer than 500 calories per day by April 1945.

At the end of April, the allies dropped 11,000 tons of food, and in May, the cities were liberated, rapidly restoring food supplies to normal levels.

Due to the fact that the Dutch famine affected specific locations over a well-established time frame, it creates a perfect situation to study malnutrition’s effects; it is relatively simple to understand who bore the brunt and for exactly how long. For this reason, some researchers have referred to the Dutch famine as a human laboratory.

A number of studies have explored the health outcomes of prenatal famine exposure, but most of them have concentrated on physical conditions such as diabetes, obesity, and coronary heart disease, rather than any potential psychiatric outcomes.

Researchers who have examined mental health in this context have focused more on major psychiatric disorders, such as psychosis and schizoid personality disorder.

For the new study, the authors looked at a broader picture. They set out to “assess the long-term impact of prenatal exposure to the Dutch famine on mental health-related quality of life,” and their findings were published recently in the journal Aging and Mental Health.

The researchers took data from the Netherlands Kinship Panel Study. They focused on 673 people from the Netherlands born between 16 November 1942 and 3 February 1948.

This date range allowed the team to compare those whose mothers had experienced malnutrition during pregnancy as well as those whose mothers were pregnant years before and after the event but in the same locations.

All the participants completed a questionnaire designed to pick up affective disorder, anxiety, and depression. This was completed at an average age of 57. The data were adjusted for childhood poverty — a factor already linked with poorer mental health in later life.

Their analysis showed that mental health was, as expected, poorer for those whose mothers had suffered malnutrition during pregnancy. According to the authors:

[I]n the affected cities, mental health was significantly better for the pre-famine and post-famine cohorts compared to the famine cohort.”

They also found that the effect was more pronounced among women than men. For other areas of the Netherlands unaffected by famine, there were no differences in mental health between groups.

The results are interesting, but the authors note certain shortfalls in the study. For instance, they only knew where the children were living at the age of 15, rather than their exact place of birth. And, the sample size was relatively small.

It is also impossible to look at malnutrition in isolation; a pregnant woman who is struggling to find food will also be experiencing high levels of psychological stress, which could, in itself, influence her offspring’s long-term mental health.

That being said, the study does add a new layer to our understanding of the effects of famine on the unborn child, backing up earlier studies that had similar outcomes. The authors hope to continue their work and investigate the gender differences they measured in more detail.