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Shorter women have unhealthier kids in developing countries, study says

April 20, 2010 |  4:24 pm

A woman's malnutrition and other adverse effects suffered during her childhood can adversely affect the health of her children, Harvard researchers said Tuesday. In a study of 54 poor countries, researchers found that the shortest women were substantially more likely to have children who died at an early age, who were underweight or who failed to thrive, according to a report in the Journal of the American Medical Assn.

"Height is a useful and stable marker of cumulative health," said the lead author, Dr. S.V. Subramanian of the Harvard School of Public Health. "It is an indicator of the nutritional environment a person was exposed to during childhood, which shapes both the mother's attained height and subsequent health as well as her offspring's chances of survival or ability to grow in infancy and childhood," he said in a statement.

Subramanian and his colleagues analyzed health surveys from 54 countries that included more than 2.6 million children and more than 750,000 mothers. Overall, they found that 11.7% of the children died before the age of 5. Children born to the shortest mothers -- those shorter than 4 feet, 9 inches -- were 40% more likely to die than those born to the tallest mothers, the team found. Overall, about one in 14 of those born to the tallest mothers died, compared to one in seven of those born to the shortest mothers. The children who survived were also more likely themselves to be underweight and short.

In terms of dying, the effects of the mother's shortness was nearly as important as those of her having no education or the lowest income, 70% and 80%, respectively. The mother's height was twice as important as her lack of education in determining whether the child would be underweight and 50% more important than her poor income.

To break the cycle of poor health in children, the team said, it is vital to provide better nutrition for young children so that they can grow up to be healthy and produce healthy children of their own.

-- Thomas H. Maugh II