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"The child is father of the man": Exploring developmental origins of health and disease

3801281145_1f3fb2c8bf_z Among scientific communities, there is a small but growing segment of research concerned with "DOHaD" - the developmental origins of health and disease. The work usually focuses on how childhood, including birth, the fetal period, and sometimes even pre-conception events, affects a person's lifelong health and well-being and is the topic of a recent article (subscription required) published in Pediatrics by researchers at the Eunice Kennedy Shriver National Institute of Child Health and Human Development. The phrase "the child is father of the man" is a line from William Wordsworth's "My Heart Leaps Up" and also the title of the article, whose authors added, commendably, "and the mother of the woman."

DOHaD gained acceptance within the medical community starting with the "Barker Theory" in 1995, when David Barker, MD, showed that babies with low birth weights were at higher risk for coronary heart disease later in life. Prior to his work, the dominant model was that the health of those who survived childhood without major disease or disability was sort of "reset" in adulthood, to decline from then into old age. This is increasingly understood to be a simplistic model.

Resistance to the idea stems from the fact that links between child and adult health are associative and not proven to be causative; therefore, the article's authors Alan E. Guttmacher, MD, and Tonse N.K. Raju, MD, call for scientists to do more mechanistic research investigating causation, and "more importantly, to devise treatments and preventions, for the many “adult-onset” conditions that actually are rooted in much earlier exposures and events." Such research is difficult because of the incredible number of variables that occur over an entire lifespan, and even within the category "perinatal risk factors."

In the piece, the authors describe the importance of DOHaD and how a better understanding of it could affect pediatrics and health care:

Arguably the most important advance in the health care of children, and in establishing pediatrics as a medical specialty, was the cultural awakening that children were not simply small adults. Ironically, DOHaD greatly expands the impact of pediatrics by reversing that shift and focusing on how children actually are smaller versions of the adults they will become.

Once the biological and behavioral pathways that underlie DOHaD are identified and understood, the role of pediatrics should expand in fundamental and powerful ways. Anticipatory guidance in the future will not be just about the next 6 weeks or 6 months or even 6 years of the child’s life, but the entire life span. The pediatrician and other children’s health care providers will inform parenting and behaviors, including diet and exercise, and even prescribe presymptomatic medication targeted to the individual child. The pediatrician will become the gatekeeper to lifelong health.

Photo by Brad Brundage

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