Starvation May Affect the Health of Descendants


Starvation may affect the health of descendants of future generations according to a recent study. Researchers at Columbia University Medical Center (CUMC) found evidence that starvation causes changes in nucleic acids and are inherited by the offspring of at least three generations. The findings suggest we should be aware of how environments affect future offspring.

Starvation may affect the health of descendants

The World Health Organization (WHO) declares that hunger is the single greatest threat to the world’s public health. According to the Oxford English Dictionary hunger has three meanings described as the following: A strong craving or desiring; a scarcity or want of food in a country; the painful or uneasy sensation caused by a craving appetite for want of food. In addition, hunger is an exhausted condition caused by wanting food.

Globally, millions of mothers suffer from malnutrition; however, children suffer the most from starvation and hunger. In essence, those who are less fortunate lack the essential vitamins, minerals, and protein in their diets, due to a variety of reasons like poverty, war, inadequate agriculture, food shortages, and natural disasters.

Close to 3.1 million children under the age of five die from starvation and lack of nutrition every year.

Every 3.6 seconds someone dies from starvation.

Today, the number of people dying of starvation is nearly 20,864.

Approximately, 7,615,360 people will die of hunger this year.

Starvation study on RNA

Prior evidence from animal studies and human famines suggests that starvation may affect the health of descendants of famished families. Dr. Oliver Hobert, Howard Hughes Medical Institute Investigator at CUMC and professor of molecular biophysics and biochemistry and a team of researchers conducted the study. They suggest that starvation may induce changes in molecules in our bodies known as RNAs. Researchers used roundworms and found that they were able to develop a resistance to a virus and pass that immunity along to their progeny for many following generations.

According to Dr. Hobert, a starvation response produces small RNAs and passes them on from one generation to the next. He said, “We have not shown that the starvation-induced small RNAs were responsible for the increased longevity—it’s just a correlation.”  In addition, Dr. Hobert expressed, “However, they do suggest that we should be aware of other things—beyond pure DNA changes—that may have a long-term impact on the health of an organism. In other words, something that happened to one generation, whether famine or some other traumatic event, may be relevant to the health of its descendants for generations.”

Evolutionary theory and ways to reduce starvation

All life is made up of three different types of molecules contained in cells. They are proteins, and nucleic acids called DNA, and RNA. DNA and RNA carry our generic information; they are inherited from one generation to the next.  The idea that organic acquired characteristics are transmitted to offspring is known as evolutionary theory. Evolutionary theory or the idea of traits being inherited dates back to when French naturalist, Jean-Baptiste Lamarck did his Floreal lecture of 1800.

Giraffes are a good example of how Lamarck suggests that species evolve by adapting to their environment. According to Lamarck, giraffes developed their elongated necks as they stretched to eat leaves of high trees. Giraffes with longer necks had a better chance of getting food, resulting in more offspring.

An additional study of starving women giving birth during the Dutch famine of World War II shows that offspring inherit traits and pass them on to their progeny. The outcome of the study explains that the starving women’s children and grandchildren were unusually susceptible to metabolic disorders, including obesity.

This recent study proposes that starvation may affect the health of descendants.  Moreover, many people, governments, businesses, and organizations are presently active in trying to help people suffering from hunger today.  Those who give their time and money to help people in need of food today are inevitably helping to improve the health of future generations, as well.

Here are three ways to help reduce hunger. Work directly with poor people, financial contribute to help to reduce hunger and poverty, and influence public and governmental policy to support people in need.

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George Zapo, CPH
George Zapo, CPH is certified in Public Health Promotion & Education. George focuses on writing informative articles promoting healthy behavior and lifestyles. Read more of George's articles at his website: