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Preventing disease passing across generations

We have transformed understanding of early life influences on non-communicable diseases, targeting these to improve health in later life.

Key facts

  • Southampton research demonstrated the influence of parents’ nutrition, lifestyle and metabolism on their children’s lifelong NCD risk

  • Our LifeLab laboratory is building teenagers’ understanding of the health impacts of their choices for them and their future children


Generating new insight into risks

Non-communicable diseases (NCDs) include heart and lung disease, diabetes and some forms of cancer. They cause 15 million premature deaths annually worldwide, 89% of UK deaths and substantial healthcare costs.

Our studies challenged the idea that one’s NCD risk is mainly due to inherited genetic risk, combined with unhealthy lifestyle. They linked epigenetic changes (switching genes on/off) in the unborn baby with obesity and stiffer blood vessels in childhood with higher NCD risk (published here). Those epigenetic changes were shown to be linked to the mother’s diet, lifestyle and body weight change during pregnancy.

We went on to demonstrate impacts of parents’ nutrition, lifestyle and metabolism, even before conception. Those factors profoundly influenced their children’s lifelong NCD risk (published here).

We built on this to trial supplementing key nutrients before conception. Early findings show less babies born before term (published here). The extensive samples, information and ongoing involvement of these families and children enables further research to provide the next generation with the best start to life.

Changing young people’s behaviours

We have made substantial progress in developing awareness and using this knowledge to drive healthier early life nutrition. That includes our online learning tools, used by healthcare professionals in over 17 countries. But our key focus has been on equipping the next generation of parents; adolescents.

Our LifeLab science and health literacy programme provides professional development for teachers and immersive, hands-on activities for teenagers. Delivered via a purpose-built teaching laboratory and online resources, it has engaged 11,500 students from 66 schools.

In 2021 a trial comparing LifeLab with standard education reported that LifeLab increased teenagers’ understanding of the health impacts of their choices for them and their future children. Participants also viewed their own lifestyles more critically as a result.

Our research has also advanced health policy, including:

  • Directly informing the 2017 World Health Organisation Commission on Ending Childhood Obesity and 2018 Nurturing Care Framework

  • Contributing a chapter on preconception health for the 2014 Chief Medical Officer’s Annual Report

  • Establishment of the UK Preconception Partnership to translate research to inform policy in 2019

  • A 2020 collaboration with Public Health England tracking progress in preconception health via an annual ‘report card’

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