Life history and the early origins of health differentials



Current epidemiologic models concerning the fetal origins of later health risk are evaluated from the perspectives of evolutionary and developmental biology. Claims of adaptive value for and biological status of fetal programming are critically examined. Life history theory is applied to identify key trade-offs in adaptive strategies that constrain developmental design to use information from the environment to guide ontogeny and establish cost–benefit trade-offs that weigh early survival advantage against remote or unlikely future costs. Expectable environments of evolutionary adaptedness, particularly of gestation, are characterized and their impact on human adaptive design discussed. The roles of neuroendocrine mechanisms in scaffolding life course development, negotiating ongoing cost–benefit trade-offs, and mediating their long-term impacts on function and health are reviewed in detail. Overviews of gestational biology and the postnatal physiologic, cognitive-affective, and behavioral effects of gestational stress identify a shared central role for the hypothalamic–pituitary–adrenal (HPA) axis. Rather than merely mediating stress responses, the axis emerges an agent of resource allocation that draws a common thread among conditions of gestation, postnatal environments, and functional and health-related outcomes. The preponderance of evolutionary and developmental analysis identifies environments as agents on both sides of the health risk equation, by influencing vulnerabilities and capacities established in early and later life course development, and determining exposures and demands encountered over the life course. Am. J. Hum. Biol. 17:95–112, 2005. © 2004 Wiley-Liss, Inc.