FRIDAY, Aug. 26, 2011 (HealthDay News) -- People who experience starvation in their youth are at greater risk for heart disease later in life, a new study has found.
In analyzing women who survived the Dutch famine of 1944-1945, researchers from the Netherlands found that the link is particularly strong among those who were undernourished as teenagers.
The study authors said their findings, published in the Aug. 25 online edition of the European Heart Journal, provide the first direct evidence of the adverse health effects associated with famine -- a problem that remains a critical problem around the world.
In conducting the study, Dutch researchers examined 7,845 women who were under 21 years of age and living in the Netherlands during the final year of World War II -- a time when severe food shortages limited most adults to no more than 800 calories per day.
The women, studied in the mid-1990s, were divided into three groups: those who never went hungry; those who were severely affected by the famine; and those who were moderately affected by the food shortages.
The investigators found the risk of heart disease was slightly higher overall for the women who were moderately exposed to the famine than those who were not exposed at all. The women who were severely affected by hunger in their youth, however, had a significantly higher risk for heart disease.
Those with the highest risk were women who were between 10 and 17 years old when the famine hit and were severely affected by it. As adults, these women had a 38 percent greater risk for heart disease. In taking other risk factors into consideration, such as smoking and education, the researchers pointed out that the women still had a 27 percent greater risk for heart disease. Meanwhile, those with moderate exposure to hunger had no increased risk.
The study noted, however, that the women exposed to famine, particularly those who were between 18 and 21 years old at the time, had a lower risk of stroke than those who did not bear the brunt of the food shortages.
The authors of an editorial accompanying the report noted that the findings have modern-day relevance because the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization reports that 925 million people worldwide are undernourished.
"Since the incidence of CVD [cardiovascular disease] is the number one cause of death globally, and rising in many parts of the world, further research into the impact of undernutrition during sensitive periods of growth and maturation is warranted," study first author Annet van Abeelen, a PhD epidemiology student at University Medical Center Utrecht, and colleagues wrote.
Although the researchers cited unhealthy lifestyles, changes in metabolism or traumatic stress as possible explanations for the increased risk of heart disease among adults who experienced starvation in their youth, they suggested that more research is needed to investigate this link.
"More knowledge in this field may lead to unique opportunities for prevention in the future," van Abeelen, who is also a PhD epidemiology student in the department of clinical epidemiology, biostatistics and bioinformatics at the Academic Medical Center at the University of Amsterdam, explained in a journal news release.
"Our study indicates that growth that has been hampered by undernutrition in later childhood, followed by a subsequent recovery, may have metabolic consequences that contribute to an increased risk of diseases later in adulthood," van Abeelen concluded.
The U.S. National Library of Medicine has more about child nutrition.