How important is birth environment for you now?

Environmental factors at birth, such as temperature and altitude, can affect the baby's fertility later, show recent studies

By DTE Staff
Published: Thursday 20 February 2020

It is well-known that our environment affects our health. However, according to a series of recent studies, some of the major health risks we are prone to can be determined from the environment our mothers were exposed during pregnancy — sometimes 25 or 30 years after birth. 

The findings were published by Mary Regina Boland, assistant professor of Informatics in Biostatistics and Epidemiology at Perelen School of Medicine, University of Pennsylvania, and her team of researchers through the years.

In 2015, Boland developed an algorithm examining how an individual’s birth month or season had significant impact on the diseases they developed during their lifetime.

“We had been looking at findings that connected women’s low vitamin D levels with increased risk of schizophrenia in their babies,” a research article of University of Pennsylvania quoted Boland as saying. “Then we came across several disease-focused studies, including some on asthma, which used birth season as a proxy for vitamin D exposure. But each of these approaches cherry-picked a particular question, and we wondered: Has anyone looked at all major diseases and birth season?” 

In a 2017 follow-up of the study, her team confirmed some known birth-season links. According to the study published in journal JAMIA, a mother’s first-trimester exposure to fine air particulates—air pollution that is more concentrated in warm temperatures—increased her baby’s risk of cardiovascular disease.

Boland’s most recent work looked at 22 human studies on the link between temperature at birth and female fertility later in life. According to her research published in Nature in January 2020, the baby’s exposure to several environmental factors, including altitude, rainfall and temperature, affected the number of children she had.

On the other hand, some of her research also highlighted how diagnoses were shaped by cultural factors rather than the environment. For example, children who entered kindergarten at a younger age were 18 percent more likely to receive a diagnosis of attention deficit and hyperactivity disorder.

According to Boland:

I’m fascinated by the idea that factors like air pollution can affect things so much later in life. You tend to be diagnosed with cardiovascular conditions when you’re around 40, at least. For the reproductive conditions, most people aren’t diagnosed before age 30. These environmental exposures that were in play when you were inside your mom can affect you 25, 35, or 40 years later.

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