How the First Nine Months Shape the Rest of Your Life
Cancer. Hart disease. Obesity. Depression. Scientist can now trace the health of adults to the nine months before birth.
The new science of fetal origins
by Annie Murphy Paul
What makes us the way we are? Why are some people predisposed to be anxious, overweight or asthmatic? How is it that some of us are prone to heart attacks, diabetes or high blood pressure?
There's a list of conventional answers to these questions. We are the way we are because it's in our genes. We turn out the way we do because of our childhood experiences. Or our health and well-being stem from the lifestyle choices we make as adults.
But there's another powerful source of influence you may not have considered: your life as a fetus. The nutrition you received in the womb; the pollutants, drugs and infections you were exposed to during gestation; your mother's health and state of mind while she was pregnant with you — all these factors shaped you as a baby and continue to affect you to this day.
This is the provocative contention of a field known as fetal origins, whose pioneers assert that the nine months of gestation constitute the most consequential period of our lives, permanently influencing the wiring of the brain and the functioning of organs such as the heart, liver and pancreas. In the literature on the subject, which has exploded over the past 10 years, you can find references to the fetal origins of cancer, cardiovascular disease, allergies, asthma, hypertension, diabetes, obesity, mental illness. At the farthest edge of fetal-origins research, scientists are exploring the possibility that intrauterine conditions influence not only our physical health but also our intelligence, temperament, even our sanity.
As a journalist who covers science, I was intrigued when I first heard about fetal origins. But two years ago, when I began to delve more deeply into the field, I had a more personal motivation: I was newly pregnant. If it was true that my actions over the next nine months would affect my offspring for the rest of his life, I needed to know more.
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Of course, no woman who is pregnant today can escape hearing the message that what she does affects her fetus. She hears it at doctor's appointments, sees it in the pregnancy guidebooks: Do eat this, don't drink that, be vigilant but never stressed. Expectant mothers could be forgiven for feeling that pregnancy is just a nine-month slog, full of guilt and devoid of pleasure, and this research threatened to add to the burden.
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But the scientists I met weren't full of dire warnings but of the excitement of discovery — and the hope that their discoveries would make a positive difference. Research on fetal origins is prompting a revolutionary shift in thinking about where human qualities come from and when they begin to develop. It's turning pregnancy into a scientific frontier: the National Institutes of Health embarked last year on a multidecade study that will examine its subjects before they're born. And it makes the womb a promising target for prevention, raising hopes of conquering public-health scourges like obesity and heart disease through interventions before birth.
Adapted from Origins: How the Nine Months Before Birth Shape the Rest of Our Lives, by Annie Murphy Paul, published in September by Free Press.
This is an abridged version of an article that appears in the Oct. 4, 2010, print and iPad editions of TIME magazine.
Annie Murphy Paul