In the winter of 1944, the western Netherlands faced a famine of epic proportions. A Nazi blockade had stopped all food or fuel from entering the region, forcing residents to eat whatever they could scrounge up—sometimes even grass or tulip bulbs. Many consumed as little as 600 calories a day, and by the time the famine eased that spring, more than 20,000 people had starved to death.
It was a historic disaster that later provided a bittersweet opportunity for researchers. Because the famine had struck an otherwise well-fed community, it offered a unique chance to study how temporary malnutrition might affect long-term health—not only for those who had survived the disaster, but also their offspring.
While combing through Dutch medical records in the 1990s, epidemiologists in Britain and the Netherlands began to notice that thousands of children born to mothers who were pregnant during the famine tended to have low birth weights. That in itself wasn’t surprising, however. What shocked the researchers was that these birth weights often corresponded with high rates of heart disease, obesity and diabetes late in life—ailments that popped up decades after exposure to famine in the womb.
“That was really the first time that researchers realized parental nutrition could have an impact years down the line,” says Simin Nikbin Meydani, director of the Jean Mayer USDA Human Nutrition Research Center on Aging (HNRCA) at Tufts. That finding, called the “Barker Hypothesis” (after David Barker, the British epidemiologist who championed the notion), was not without controversy, in part because the children who survived pregnancy during the famine may have been somehow different from those who did not.
But it did open up a new area for scientific exploration—one that Meydani and other HNRCA researchers are able to focus on through better-controlled experiments. “We’re starting to gain a much better understanding that what happens to you early in life, and what happens to your parents, has a significant impact in terms of how you grow up and respond to different diseases,” she says. “It’s a really exciting concept.”