Philip Larkin’s poem, ‘They f*** you up, your mum and dad . . .’ might not have been written about health, but there’s little doubt now that if you have heart disease, you can certainly blame your mum. Your dad, it seems, can’t carry the can for this one!
Most parents try to make their kids’ lives happier and easier. We’d hate to do anything that would undermine their future health. And yet, in so many cases, that is exactly what seems to be happening, without us realising.
Over the past few decades there has been a staggering rise in rates of childhood obesity, allergic diseases such as eczema, asthma and serious food allergies, as well as diabetes and heart disease.
These are all ‘inflammatory’ diseases (where your body mistakenly mounts an inappropriate immune response and attacks healthy tissue) and the evidence shows they are all linked to what happens in the womb and during our first few years of life.
The good news is that you can turn the tide on your own unhealthy inheritance — but first you have to understand what is going on.
Most parents try to make their kids’ lives happier and easier. We’d hate to do anything that would undermine their future health (file image)
The key to this is huge studies that follow families from before conception and then through the early years of life. An eminent professor of paediatrics, Desiree Silva, recently set up such a trial in Western Australia — where I am currently making a new documentary series.
A s well as the freedom to walk around without fear of getting or spreading Covid-19, one of the joys of being in Australia is catching up with old friends such as Desi, whom I first met 40 years ago, when we were both starting out as medical students in London.
Desi, who is charming and dynamic, was known as ‘Miss Fix-it’, because she got things done. When I wanted to make my first film in 1984, it was Desi who persuaded Channel 4 to lend us the filming and editing equipment.
Desi is one of the brains behind The Origins Project, the biggest study of its kind in Australia. They’re recruiting 10,000 pregnant women, their partners and their children, and plan to monitor them for many years. ‘We’ve already collected over 18,000 jars of stools, 50 litres of urine and tissue from more than 800 placentas,’ she told me with relish during lunch. They are also collecting huge amounts of information about the parents’ lifestyles.
‘Our goal,’ she told me, ‘is to identify the critical factors in a child’s early environment (including their parents’ physical health and genetics — using saliva samples) that put that child at greater risk of asthma, eczema, autism, obesity etc and, crucially, show what can be done to reduce those risks.’
In the UK we have something similar, called the Avon Longitudinal Study, which for nearly 30 years has been monitoring more than 15,000 mothers and their offspring. Among other things, the researchers have shown the alarming impact of a pregnant mother’s iodine levels on her child’s IQ.
Iodine is essential for the production of thyroxine, a hormone that is important for the proper development of the brain. And in the UK we get iodine mainly from cow’s milk and white fish.
Desi – one of the brains behind The Origins Project – is recruiting 10,000 pregnant women, their partners and their children, and plan to monitor them for many years (file image)