What if we could eliminate chronic disease, diabetes, obesity, hypertension, heart disease, and more in people before they were even born?
"We can," says Sean Daneshmand, an OB/GYN and doctor of maternal and fetal medicine at San Diego Perinatal Center, "with fetal programming."
Fetal programming is the idea that, during a fetus' development in the womb, environmental impacts, such as nutrients, stressors, or toxins, can affect or even reset organ, tissue, and cell function by changing the child's genetic makeup. In other words, the child adapts to its environment before it's even born.
"The nine months of pregnancy are not just important for the health of the mom and fetus but also the adult life of the unborn baby," Daneshmand says. "Many health care providers don't take time to really talk with pregnant women about their health. Instead of prescribing pills and medications, we should be educating women about healthy food and exercise and giving them access to these things before disease occurs."
"It's simple," Daneshmand says. "If women are healthier, then children, and eventually adults, will be healthier. It's the circle of life, and it starts with women."
HWHC enhances the well-being of women, children, and families through education, prevention, and medical care. The nonprofit organization is currently working with three YMCAs in California area to provide prescription passes, free child care, and nutritional classes to low-income women.
HWHC has also teamed up with researchers to conduct additional study of fetal programming. They include Sean Newcomer, assistant professor and exercise physiologist at California State University, San Marcos; Kristin Spivey, a cell biologist and scientific consultant at Annuary Healthcare; and Lynn Fieser, HWHC's program director.
"We are in the early stages of a pilot research study that will examine the umbilical cord blood vessel of 10 pregnant women: five who are exercising during their pregnancy and five who aren't," Daneshmand says. "We will look for DNA sequencing and methylation status, which play an important role in development and disease."
Their theory: If a pregnant woman is eating healthy foods and exercising, certain genes in the fetus "turn on" and or "turn off." This way, she reduces the risk of her child growing up to develop long-term diseases, such as diabetes and hypertension.
"By eliminating long-term diseases, we can reduce health care costs," Daneshmand says. "If we focus on the causes of poor nutrition—genetics and a lack of education and resources, especially in low-income areas—we can solve this issue systemically."
According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, 75 percent of health care spending goes toward treating chronic diseases.
"For less than $800 in 6 months," Daneshmand says, "HWHC can get a woman healthier through its collaboration with local OB/GYNs, federally funded community clinics, and gyms, such as the YMCA."