Here's how you shape your life in the first 1,000 days

Aug 4 2020

Professor Craig Pennell is Chair of Obstetrics and Gynaecology, School of Medicine and Public Health, Faculty of Health and Medicine and Professor Maternal Fetal Medicine at the University of Newcastle. He works clinically as a sub-specialist in Maternal Fetal Medicine at the John Hunter Hospital in Newcastle and is a principal researcher at the Hunter Medical Research Institute. He is also the Foundation Scientific Director of Newcastle 1000. 

He firmly believes that the first 1000 days of life are a crucial time to set people on a positive health trajectory from life. From conception to two years of age, there are simple interventions that make a real long-term difference to our health. These include: 

  • not smoking (women and men) 
  • no alcohol 
  • healthy eating 
  • exercise 
  • regular antenatal check-ups 
  • breastfeeding 

We know that decades of research and interventions have failed to reduce the rates of the common non-communicable diseases – obesity, high  blood pressure, diabetes, high cholesterol. 

His team have spent a decade investigating the role of genetics in fetal growth and risk of adult disease and have recently shown that simple interventions in those at high (genetic) risk have the potential to reduce the risk back to the low risk population. To date these interventions have focused on nutrition in the early years of life. 

Craig and his team have identified that the best time to make the positive changes we need are from the very beginning of life - in the first 1000 days which will set us up on the best trajectory for a healthy life. 

What's an ideal pregnancy? Easy conception, normal fetal growth, no pregnancy complications, term-birth and for the child to be on a trajectory for health - not disease. 

In pregnancy most organs demonstrate plasticity - which means they can be positively and negatively impacted. After birth, the brain is the only organ that is still relatively plastic.  

Babies who are exposed to an adverse environment are much more likely to develop adult diseases. Babies who are small in size (because of pre-term birth or adverse influences in pregnancy) are more likely to develop disease. 

Our genetics influence our disease trajectory – this can be used to our advantage to identify the population who will benefit the most for interventions in early life. 

Nearly two billion people around the world are overweight or obese, 2.8 billion have cardiovascular disease. One in 11 adults has diabetes and almost 40% of us has raised cholesterol. Rates of many of these diseases continue to increase, leaving many of the population at risk of developing a fatal condition. 

Craig is focussed on precision medicine: the right medication, to the right patient, at the right time to get the best result. He's devised the Newcastle1000 program, which aims to follow cohorts of mothers, fathers and babies through the first 1000 days of their lives and throughout to improve health outcomes of those who participate - and the broader community worldwide.  

Craig's other area of research focus and clinical work is managing high-risk pregnancies to reduce the risk of stillbirth. With Red Nose Day coming up on August 14, it's a time that shines a spotlight on this heartbreaking pregnancy outcome and work on ways to mitigate the risks of stillbirth and help parents deliver healthy babies. 

Craig spoke to ABC Newcastle's Kia Handley, listen here