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Can J Psychiatry. 1999 May;44(4):326-34.

Prenatal factors and adult mental and physical health.

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  • 1Division of Epidemiology, Joseph L Mailman School of Public Health, Columbia University, New York, New York, USA.



To review research on prenatal influences on adult mental and physical health and draw implications for future directions in psychiatric research.


Schizophrenia is selected as an example from mental health and cardiovascular disease as an example from physical health. For each of these disorders, empirical findings on prenatal influences are reviewed, and the methods used to demonstrate them are critiqued.


Research on prenatal antecedents of these conditions has proceeded in parallel: intriguing findings have related fetal growth restriction or fetal insult to adult health; similar types of causal pathways have been proposed to explain the relationships; and research has been plagued by similar limitations, including lack of precise prenatal exposure data and difficulty of controlling confounding. The prevailing view of disease causation, which is not well-suited to investigation of prenatal antecedents, impedes research in both fields. Yet, there has been little interchange between researchers in the 2 fields.


We propose a causal paradigm that could serve as a guide for future investigations on the prenatal antecedents of adult health and promote interchange between research on mental and physical health. The paradigm reflects current thinking in epidemiology by encompassing not only risk factors as traditionally conceived but also causal chains over time and causal influences at multiple levels of organization. Implications for the design of new research are illustrated with reference to an ongoing study.

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