Ottawa, CANADA – A new joint study from the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health and Nutrition International demonstrates how maternal nutrition supplementation can reduce the likelihood of children developing non-communicable diseases (NCDs) later in life. This is the first study to quantify the intergenerational impact of prenatal supplementation on NCDs.

This research, the first phase of a multi-year project, looked at three maternal nutrition interventions in 132 low- and middle-income countries: multiple micronutrient supplementation (MMS), iron and folic acid supplementation (IFA), and calcium supplementation, to determine their impact on the offspring developing NCDs later in life, and found that a significant number of NCD cases and related deaths could be prevented with increased coverage of these interventions.

“Maternal nutrition is the secret weapon in the fight against the double-burden of malnutrition. Not only is it critical for the health of the mother and her child, but now we have evidence that it also makes a significant impact on reducing NCDs,” said Joel Spicer, President and CEO of Nutrition International. “It’s time to double-down on maternal nutrition as a means of tackling NCDs and as a foundational building block of universal health care.”

It’s time to double-down on maternal nutrition as a means of tackling NCDs and as a foundational building block of universal health care.

MMS – a daily dose of 15 vitamins and minerals – had the greatest impact on NCD prevention. The study found that, at 90% coverage across the countries surveyed, MMS could prevent three million cases of diabetes, six million cases of hypertension, and delay 50,000 NCD-related deaths. By comparison, IFA supplementation resulted in half the reduced number of cases and deaths. The World Health Organization has recommended the use of MMS in populations where nutritional deficiencies are prevalent. As countries look to transition to MMS from IFA supplementation, this research recognizes the greater impact that MMS can have at the population-level.

“Quantifying the impact of early nutrition on later life non-communicable diseases has always been a challenge,” said Mandana Arabi, Chief Technical Advisor and Vice-President of Global Technical Services at Nutrition International. “We often lack data collected over several decades and the effect sizes are harder to establish over a long period of time. This study aims to advance our methods in conducting such analyses and is a step towards identifying the best, most cost-effective interventions that can address multiple burdens of malnutrition.”

Nearly two-thirds of deaths in low- and middle-income countries are attributable to NCDs, such as diabetes, hypertension and heart disease. Existing evidence indicates that maternal undernutrition is an early life stressor that contributes to offspring developing future NCDs.

“The impact of good nutrition is felt through generations – these findings demonstrate just how true that is,” said Goodarz Danaei, Bernard Lown Associate Professor of Cardiovascular Health at the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health. “Through every phase of the life cycle, a mother’s nutrition can improve the health of her child. We know that maternal nutrition increases survival rates, fosters proper growth and development, and now, that it can impact the child’s health into adulthood.”

The impact of good nutrition is felt through generations – these findings demonstrate just how true that is

The World Health Organization’s Global Action Plan on Prevention and Control of Non-Communicable Disease includes nutrition and nutrition-related outcomes as key targets for the prevention and control of NCDs. This research shows that the benefits of prenatal micronutrient supplements extend beyond improving maternal and child survival and human capital to include noticeable improvements in long-term NCD risk for the next generation.