a1 Institute of Human Nutrition, Columbia University, New York, USA (currently at UNICEF)
a2 Department of Nutrition for Health and Development, World Health Organization, Geneva, Switzerland
a3 International Obesity Task Force, London, UK
Objective: To briefly review the current understanding of the aetiology and prevention of chronic diseases using a life course approach, demonstrating the life-long influences on the development of disease.
Design: A computer search of the relevant literature was done using Medline-‘life cycle’ and ‘nutrition’ and reviewing the articles for relevance in addressing the above objective. Articles from references dated before 1990 were followed up separately. A subsequent search using Clio updated the search and extended it by using ‘life cycle’, ‘nutrition’ and ‘noncommunicable disease’ (NCD), and ‘life course’. Several published and unpublished WHO reports were key in developing the background and arguments.
Setting: International and national public health and nutrition policy development in light of the global epidemic in chronic diseases, and the continuing nutrition, demographic and epidemiological transitions happening in an increasingly globalized world.
Results of review: There is a global epidemic of increasing obesity, diabetes and other chronic NCDs, especially in developing and transitional economies, and in the less affluent within these, and in the developed countries. At the same time, there has been an increase in communities and households that have coincident under- and over-nutrition.
Conclusions: The epidemic will continue to increase and is due to a lifetime of exposures and influences. Genetic predisposition plays an unspecified role, and with programming during fetal life for adult disease contributing to an unknown degree. A global rise in obesity levels is contributing to a particular epidemic of type 2 diabetes as well as other NCDs. Prevention will be the most cost-effective and feasible approach for many countries and should involve three mutually reinforcing strategies throughout life, starting in the antenatal period.