I recently had the opportunity to listen to a lecture by Prof. Susan Prescott from Western Australia. It was a lecture of high-quality information and excellent presentation. She is an inspiring paediatrician with a particular interest in allergy.
She was making a number of important points.
Both developed and developing nations are facing an epidemic of non-communicable diseases such as allergy, cardiovascular disease, hypertension and diabetes. She also mentioned mental health problems.
As a paediatrician and a doctor who specialists in this field she is concerned at the rise in these problems and the impact which they will have upon every culture. She was also making the point that as healthcare providers and as parents we need to be aware that some of the risks leading to these lifelong diseases arise not only early in life and during pregnancy but even before conception.
Prof. Prescott made the point that there are nutritional choices which can be made which have an impact upon the well-being of ourselves as parents, particularly mothers, and on the well-being of the baby.
Incidence of allergy on the rise
You may be aware that the incidence of allergy has increased dramatically in the last two or three decades and has probably increased by a factor of between 200% and 400%. It has now been shown that 10% of children in Australia have a genuine food allergy to some degree. While the incidence of respiratory problems such as asthma appears to have stabilised and is perhaps slightly decreasing the incidence of allergy affecting children continues to rise.
One of the worrying points which she made is that there is potential for this avalanche of chronic disease to be so significant that for the first time in more than 100 years we may in fact see a reduction in life expectancy in future decades.
On a personal note, I am aware of how severe these problems can become. We have a child who works in the Middle East. For some time I managed a medical practice in Dubai. In the Middle East, the frequency of diabetes is up to one third. This reflects the points which Prof. Prescott was making. These illnesses appear to affect developing nations to a greater extent than developed nations.
She emphasised and re-emphasised that early life is important in laying down parameters which have a fundamental impact upon lifetime health outcomes. This is consistent with previous work by Barker in the UK showing that being born small for dates has significant impact upon lifelong health and in particular cardiovascular health. The risks of being born small have now been made more complex by the recognition of the risks of being overweight at birth.
It is self-evident to us all that we live at a time where there are increased risks of child allergy, childhood obesity and then in adult life cardiovascular disease, diabetes and what is called metabolic syndrome which combines a number of these problems with hypertension.
How do we protect our children?
Of course the immediate question is: how do we respond? How do we protect our patients, and as families, how do we protect our children?
As always in life there is never a single, simple solution. The human body is far too complex to have a magic button which will avoid all problems. Having said this there are simple, sensible things which we can do.
If you are planning to conceive, part of your planning process should be to address physical exercise, to make healthy food choices and to attempt, to the best of your ability, to have a body weight whereby your body mass index is in the normal range. Even very modest improvements in exercise have significant benefits for mother and child. Please do not smoke.
If pregnant, again physical activity is of benefit to mother and child. Exercising outdoors and achieving enough sunlight to maintain appropriate levels of vitamin D is useful. Make healthy food choices. Please do not smoke if pregnant. Smoking increases all risks for child and mother.
One point which Prof. Prescott made which appealed to me was that maternal stress (i.e. life stress) has a negative impact upon the child’s well-being. This struck a chord with me in that one of my aims in caring for mothers with young children is to achieve high-quality growth for the baby, to obtain high-quality sleep and to return a woman to her appropriate “life balance”. I regularly see women who, once they have gained confidence in their parenting skills, fall deeply in love with the processes of being a mother. It is my belief that one of the single most important factors in the child’s long-term well-being is to be cared for by a confident, competent and happy mother who loves the time she spends nurturing and teaching a child. I feel this is completely consistent with the aims which Prof. Prescott was recommending.
Dr Brian Symon
The Babysleep Doctor