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PLoS One. 2012;7(9):e44551. doi: 10.1371/journal.pone.0044551. Epub 2012 Sep 5.

Effect of birth year on birth weight and obesity in adulthood: comparison between subjects born prior to and during the great depression in Iceland.

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  • 1Unit for Nutrition Research, Landspitali University Hospital and Faculty of Food Science and Nutrition, School of Health Sciences, University of Iceland, Reykjavik, Iceland.



Many epidemiological studies have linked small size at birth to adverse adult health outcomes but the relative influence of environmental exposures is less well established.


The authors investigated the impact of prenatal environmental exposure by comparing 2750 participants born before (1925-1929) and during (1930-1934) the Great Depression in Reykjavik, Iceland. Calendar year served as proxy for environmental effects. Anthropometric measurements at birth and school-age (8-13 years) were collected from national registries. Participants were medically examined as adults (33-65 years).


Mean birth weight, adjusted for maternal age and parity, decreased by 97 g (95% confidence interval (CI): 39, 156) for men and 70 g (95% CI: 11, 129) for women from 1925 to 1934; growth at school-age was significantly reduced for participants growing during the Depression. As adults, women prenatally exposed to the Depression had higher body mass index (Δ0.6 kg/m(2), 95% CI: 0.2, 1.1), higher fasting blood glucose levels (Δ0.16 mmol/L, 95% CI: 0.07, 0.23) and greater odds of being obese 1.43 (95% CI: 1.01, 2.02) compared to unexposed counterparts. Non-significant associations were observed in men.


Reduction in birth weight due to rapid shifts in the economic environment appears to have a modest but significant association with later obesity for women while male offspring appear to be less affected by these conditions.

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