Link between food in early life and famine survival in adulthood


  • Study makes link between poor access to nutrition in infancy and increased risk of mortality in later life
  • Conversely, being born with a silver spoon in your mouth may give life-long advantages

Scientists at the University of Sheffield have found a link between poor nutrition during early life and reduced resilience to later-life famine. People who experienced poor harvests around the time they were born were less likely to survive a subsequent famine than those that were born in years when food was abundant.

The Sheffield scientists analysed year-to-year crop harvest variation together with church records detailing birth, death, childbirth, and socioeconomic status for more than 3,000 individuals living in southwest Finland. They looked at the factors that influenced their fates during the catastrophic famine that struck in 1866-1868, during which the country lost around one in 10 of its population.

The collaborative study, between the Universities of Sheffield and Durham, was jointly led by Dr Adam Hayward and Dr Ian Rickard and was designed as a test of alternative hypotheses on the effects of the early-life environment on survival.

Some have argued that when we experience poor nutrition at the time of our birth, our bodies can adapt metabolically so that we can better cope with poor nutrition in later life. This study supports an alternative hypothesis that the harmful effects of a poor start in life also apply during the very worst conditions.

Lower early-life crop yields also correlated with decreased fertility during the famine in females, the study found, again supporting the idea that the body’s ability to function under harsh conditions is helped by a good start in life.

Dr Hayward said: "Our study shows that we are what we eat from the day we are born. In the longer term our bodies don’t learn from famine, they’re weakened by it. These results challenge orthodox views and should inform our approach to long-term health conditions within populations."

The effect of early food on availability on survival throughout the famine was stronger in poorer males. Dr Rickard said: "When The Who’s Roger Daltrey sang ’I was born with a plastic spoon in my mouth’, he was referring to the long-term effects of social disadvantage. Just as he described, we find that not only does the early experience of famine have long-term detrimental effects; this situation is exacerbated in the very poorest individuals."