Exposure to famine at a young age and unhealthy lifestyle behavior later in life

Heidi P. Fransen, Petra H.M. Peeters, Joline W.J. Beulens, Jolanda M.A. Boer, G. Ardine De Wit, N. Charlotte Onland-Moret, Yvonne T. Van Der Schouw, H. Bas Buenode-Mesquita, Jeljer Hoekstra, Sjoerd G. Elias, Anne M. May

Research output: Contribution to journalArticleAcademicpeer-review


Background: A healthy diet is important for normal growth and development. Exposure to undernutrition during important developmental periods such as childhood and adolescence can have effects later in life. Inhabitants of the west of the Netherlands were exposed to severe undernutrition during the famine in the last winter of the second World War (1944-1945). Objective: We investigated if exposure of women to the Dutch famine during childhood and adolescence was associated with an unhealthy lifestyle later in life. Design: We studied 7,525 women from the Prospect-EPIC cohort, recruited in 1993-97 and aged 0-18 years during the Dutch famine. An individual famine score was calculated based on self-reported information about experience of hunger and weight loss. We investigated the association between famine exposure in early life and four lifestyle factors in adulthood: smoking, alcohol consumption, physical activity level and a Mediterranean-style diet. Results: Of the 7,525 included women, 46% were unexposed, 38% moderately exposed and 16% severely exposed to the Dutch famine. Moderately and severely exposed women were more often former or current smokers compared to women that did not suffer from the famine: adjusted prevalence ratio 1.10 (95% CI: 1.05; 1.14) and 1.18 (1.12; 1.25), respectively. They also smoked more pack years than unexposed women. Severely exposed women were more often physically inactive than unexposed women, adjusted prevalence ratio 1.32 (1.06; 1.64). Results did not differ between exposure age categories (0-9 and 10-17 years). We found no associations of famine exposure with alcohol consumption and no dose-dependent relations with diet. Conclusions Exposure to famine early in female life may be associated with higher prevalence of smoking and physical inactivity later in life, but not with unhealthy diet and alcohol consumption.

Original languageEnglish
Article numbere0156609
JournalPLoS ONE
Issue number5
Publication statusPublished - May 2016

Cite this