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article imageEnvironment around babies affects later health

By Tim Sandle     Jul 4, 2017 in Health
A new study has shown babies subjected to poor environmental health in the first few months are more likely to develop problem health conditions as they become older. The specific concern is with inflammation in adulthood.
The research comes from Northwestern University. The research question was to assess the link between the factors affecting human development and the body’s regulation of inflammation. The concern with inflammation in adulthood is because inflammation is a key risk factor for a spectrum of diseases, ranging including cardiovascular diseases, diabetes, autoimmune diseases and dementia.
The research specifically looked at environmental exposure to so-termed inflammatory biomarkers, especially how the body holds onto experiences during infancy and takes these forward in a way that shapes inflammation and health in later adulthood.
Data for the study was drawn from the Philippines. The analysis indicated that various nutritional (such as breastfeeding), microbial (which ties in with the ‘hygiene hypothesis’ and expoisure to ‘dirt’ during early years); and psychosocial exposures (like social class) early in life affect DNA methylation in nine genes. These genes are involved in the regulation of inflammation. DNA methylation is an epigenetic mechanism used by cells to control gene expression; epigenetics refers to changes in a chromosome that affect gene activity and expression.
What is the hygiene hypothesis?
In medicine, the hygiene hypothesis is a hypothesis that states a lack of early childhood exposure to infectious agents, symbiotic microorganisms (such as the gut flora or probiotics), and parasites increases susceptibility to allergic diseases by suppressing the natural development of the immune system.
The scientists looked most closely at DNA methylation, which is an epigenetic process involving durable biochemical marks on the genome that regulate gene expression. This could be the biological mechanism that preserves cellular memories of early life experiences; that is, the explanation as to how environments that babies and infants are exposed to are “remembered” by the body and shape inflammation and disease risk in later life.
As an example, the study found that high levels of microbial exposure in infancy were linked with lower levels of inflammation in adulthood; whereas babies born at lower birth weights and who were breastfed for relatively short lengths of time developed higher levels of inflammation on reaching adulthood.
In a research note, principal scientist Professor Thomas McDade said: “Taking this a step further, the findings encourage us to reconsider the common view that genes are a ‘blueprint’ for the human body -- that they are static and fixed at conception.”
The research could represent a big leap forwards and challenge narrower scientific concepts like DNA as destiny and show how the social environment shape show a child develops into adulthood.
The research has been published in the journal PNAS, with the study titled “Social and physical environments early in development predict DNA methylation of inflammatory genes in young adulthood.”
More about Babies, Environment, Health, Development, inflammation
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