Scientists from the University of Southampton are exploring the link between low birth weight and diseases in later life to help improve the health of young people in India.
They are examining the impact that low birth weight and infant weight may have on the development of type 2 diabetes and cardiovascular diseases in adult life. Importantly, such effects are most exaggerated when faced with over-nutrition in later life.
The study, funded by the Wellcome Trust and the Medical Research Council (MRC), is co-ordinated by Dr Anand Pandit and Dr Chittaranjan Yajnik at the KEM Hospital, Pune, and Professor Caroline Fall from the MRC Epidemiology Resource Centre at the University of Southampton.
The result of their study could resolve some of the uncertainties about the causes of chronic illness, offering nutritional information relevant to both developing and industrialised countries as a means of preventing chronic later-life disease.
This is the latest stage of a study of 400 children born in the King Edward Memorial Hospital in Pune, in western India around 160km southeast of Mumbai, which started in 1993.
Professor Fall said: "This study, in which the children have had high-quality serial measurements of growth, biochemistry and body composition, will fill many of the gaps left by other birth cohort studies. It focuses on a population in rapid economic and nutritional transition, but the results are likely to have global relevance."
The youngsters, who are all 21, have been monitored throughout childhood and adolescence using blood tests, body composition measurements and tests for diabetes and this the first time they have been studied as adults.
As the study progresses, the findings will be related back to birth size, infant growth and nutritional diet. With female subjects, an ultrasound will also be used to check for polycystic ovary syndrome (PCOS), a complex condition that affects the ovaries and is a leading cause of infertility.
Professor Mark Hanson, Director of the Institute of Developmental Sciences at the University of Southampton, said: "We are now seeing the epidemic of diabetes and cardiovascular disease in parts of India which have changed fast, and it affects people at a much earlier age and who are not fat by Western standards. Their diet was traditionally poor and exercise levels high - but as rural people move into cities they are increasingly mismatched. The economic consequences of this for developing countries such as India, China and in Africa will be horrendous." Relatively little data is available from developing and newly industrialised countries, where long-term record keeping of birth weight data has not been a high priority. Arguably however, such countries are at the greatest risk from the mismatch of early nutritional deprivation and later nutritional affluence.
Leading medical scientists have also warned that the 'mismatch' between modern urban lifestyles and inherited genes is becoming a major issue in developing countries where people have to adapt to nutritional changes very fast.