Early growth and chronic disease: a public health overview


Catherine Law, Institute of Child Health, University College London, 30, Guilford Street, London WC1N 1EH, UK. Tel.: +44 020 79052602; fax: +44 020 79052381; e-mail: c.law@ich.ucl.ac.uk


Infant and childhood growth result from and reflect a range of influences in pre- and postnatal life. These include nutrition, burden of infection and the psycho-social environment. Nutrition in young children is dependent on individual level factors such as fetal experience, infant feeding and weaning practices, and on societal factors such as education of women and economic conditions. The relationship of early postnatal growth to adult disease may be indicative or causal, and may reveal both biological and sociological processes. Although non-insulin-dependent diabetes mellitus (NIDDM) and obesity are risk factors for ischaemic heart disease, the relationships of these three conditions to infant growth differ. Poor infant growth has been associated with higher levels of NIDDM and ischaemic heart disease, but lower levels of adult obesity. Most research has been of populations living in developed countries at different stages of nutritional transition. However, differences in context are not simply limited to the stage of the nutritional transition. They also need to consider the nature of that transition and its social correlates, which may result in the clustering of aetiological influences such as increased body mass and poverty. The size of effect of the relationship of infant growth to adult disease is important not only to determine its relative aetiological importance but also for its potential for public health policy. Such policy also needs to consider the relationships of infant growth to a range of outcomes, both health and human capital, which are not the subject of this workshop.