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Copyright © 2016 by the American Psychosomatic Society. Objectives Early-life adversity has been shown to be associated with cardiovascular disease and mortality in later life, but little is known about the mechanisms that underlie this association. Prenatal undernutrition, a severe early-life stressor, is associated with double the risk of coronary heart disease and increased blood pressure responses to psychological stress. In the present study, we tested the hypothesis that prenatal undernutrition induces alterations in the autonomic nervous system, which may increase the risk of developing heart disease. Methods We studied autonomic function in 740 men and women (mean [SD] age, 58 [0.9] years) who were members of the Dutch famine birth cohort. We compared those exposed to famine during early (n = 64), mid (n = 107), or late gestation (n = 127) to those unexposed to famine in utero (n = 442). Participants underwent a series of 3 psychological stressors (Stroop, mirror tracing, and speech) while their blood pressure and heart rate were recorded continuously. Results Data had sufficient quality in 602 participants for derivation of autonomic function indices by spectral analysis. The stress protocol led to significant sample-level changes in systolic blood pressure, heart rate, and all cardiovascular control measures (all p values <.001). None of the autonomic function parameters, at rest or in response to stress, differed significantly (all p values >.050) according to prenatal famine exposure. Conclusions Prenatal undernutrition was not associated with autonomic function in late adulthood. We conclude that altered autonomic function does not seem to explain our previous findings of increased coronary heart disease risk among those exposed to famine prenatally.

Original publication




Journal article


Psychosomatic Medicine

Publication Date





991 - 997