Maternal and child undernutrition: consequences for adult health and human capital

This paper addresses the potential long-term implications of undernutrition through a review of the associations between maternal and child undernutrition with human capital and risk of adult diseases in low and middle-income countries.

Data from Brazil, Guatemala, India, the Philippines, and South Africa was analysed and it was found that indices of maternal and child undernutrition were related to adult outcomes (height, schooling, income or assets, offspring birth weight, body-mass index, glucose concentrations, blood pressure).

The data provides strong evidence that adequate nutrition in utero and in the first two years of life is essential for formation of human capital. Undernourished children are more likely to become short adults, to have lower educational achievement, and to give birth to smaller infants. Undernutrition is also associated with lower economic status in adulthood.  Height-for-age at two years was shown to be the best predictor of human capital in adulthood and undernutrition is shown to be associated with lower human capital. The authors conclude that damage suffered in early life leads to permanent impairment, and might also affect future generations. Its prevention will probably bring about important health, educational, and economic benefits.

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