A series of three articles, published online April 16 in the Lancet, shine a light on this critical period
Medscape Medical News reviewed emerging evidence showing that preconception health of the mother- and father-to-be — especially their diet and weight — affects fertilization, embryo development, and even their child’s risk of future cardiometabolic disease.
Health and nutrition of both men and women before conception is important not only for pregnancy outcomes but also for the lifelong health of their children and even the next generation. The preconception period can be seen in three different ways: from a biological standpoint as the days and weeks before embryo development; from the individual perspective as the time of wanting to conceive; and through a population lens as any time a women is of childbearing age. This Series of three papers highlights the importance and summarises the evidence of preconception health for future health and suggests context-specific interventions. It also calls for a social movement to achieve political engagement for health in this particular phase in life.
Before the beginning : nutrition and lifestyle in the preconception period and its importance for future health
A woman who is healthy at the time of conception is more likely to have a successful pregnancy and a healthy child. We reviewed published evidence and present new data from low-income, middle-income, and high-income countries on the timing and importance of preconception health for subsequent maternal and child health. We describe the extent to which pregnancy is planned, and whether planning is linked to preconception health behaviours. Observational studies show strong links between health before pregnancy and maternal and child health outcomes, with consequences that can extend across generations, but awareness of these links is not widespread. Poor nutrition and obesity are rife among women of reproductive age, and differences between high-income and low-income countries have become less distinct, with typical diets falling far short of nutritional recommendations in both settings and especially among adolescents. Several studies show that micronutrient supplementation starting in pregnancy can correct important maternal nutrient deficiencies, but effects on child health outcomes are disappointing. Other interventions to improve diet during pregnancy have had little effect on maternal and newborn health outcomes. Comparatively few interventions have been made for preconception diet and lifestyle. Improvements in the measurement of pregnancy planning have quantified the degree of pregnancy planning and suggest that it is more common than previously recognised. Planning for pregnancy is associated with a mixed pattern of health behaviours before conception. We propose novel definitions of the preconception period relating to embryo development and actions at individual or population level. A sharper focus on intervention before conception is needed to improve maternal and child health and reduce the growing burden of non-communicable diseases. Alongside continued efforts to reduce smoking, alcohol consumption, and obesity in the population, we call for heightened awareness of preconception health, particularly regarding diet and nutrition. Importantly, health professionals should be alerted to ways of identifying women who are planning a pregnancy.
Origins of lifetime health around the time of conception: causes and consequences
Parental environmental factors, including diet, body composition, metabolism, and stress, affect the health and chronic disease risk of people throughout their lives, as captured in the Developmental Origins of Health and Disease concept. Research across the epidemiological, clinical, and basic science fields has identified the period around conception as being crucial for the processes mediating parental influences on the health of the next generation. During this time, from the maturation of gametes through to early embryonic development, parental lifestyle can adversely influence long-term risks of offspring cardiovascular, metabolic, immune, and neurological morbidities, often termed developmental programming. We review periconceptional induction of disease risk from four broad exposures: maternal overnutrition and obesity; maternal undernutrition; related paternal factors; and the use of assisted reproductive treatment. Studies in both humans and animal models have demonstrated the underlying biological mechanisms, including epigenetic, cellular, physiological, and metabolic processes. We also present a meta-analysis of mouse paternal and maternal protein undernutrition that suggests distinct parental periconceptional contributions to postnatal outcomes. We propose that the evidence for periconceptional effects on lifetime health is now so compelling that it calls for new guidance on parental preparation for pregnancy, beginning before conception, to protect the health of offspring.
Intervention strategies to improve nutrition and health behaviours before conception
The nutritional status of both women and men before conception has profound implications for the growth, development, and long-term health of their offspring. Evidence of the effectiveness of preconception interventions for improving outcomes for mothers and babies is scarce. However, given the large potential health return, and relatively low costs and risk of harm, research into potential interventions is warranted. We identified three promising strategies for intervention that are likely to be scalable and have positive effects on a range of health outcomes: supplementation and fortification; cash transfers and incentives; and behaviour change interventions. On the basis of these strategies, we suggest a model specifying pathways to effect. Pathways are incorporated into a life-course framework using individual motivation and receptiveness at different preconception action phases, to guide design and targeting of preconception interventions. Interventions for individuals not planning immediate pregnancy take advantage of settings and implementation platforms outside the maternal and child health arena, since this group is unlikely to be engaged with maternal health services. Interventions to improve women’s nutritional status and health behaviours at all preconception action phases should consider social and environmental determinants, to avoid exacerbating health and gender inequalities, and be underpinned by a social movement that touches the whole population. We propose a dual strategy that targets specific groups actively planning a pregnancy, while improving the health of the population more broadly. Modern marketing techniques could be used to promote a social movement based on an emotional and symbolic connection between improved preconception maternal health and nutrition, and offspring health. We suggest that speedy and scalable benefits to public health might be achieved through strategic engagement with the private sector. Political theory supports the development of an advocacy coalition of groups interested in preconception health, to harness the political will and leadership necessary to turn high-level policy into effective coordinated action.