Could malnutrition during childhood cause medical problems later in life?

6 answers | Last updated: Oct 20, 2016
A fellow caregiver asked...

I have osteoporosis. It is treated with medication and physical therapy. I have never told my doctor that when I was 5, I was in a Japanese prison camp. Can the lack of food and milk when I was younger have caused this disease? I am 73 now but I also had a lot of medical problems when I was in my 30's. I had troubles with my teeth, stomach pains, ulcers, nervousness and lower back pain. As an adult I have always took good care of myself- I eat the right foods, don't smoke, go to bed early, etc. I'm also wondering if osteoporosis and stomach pains can have an effect on a person later in life. My doctor is a very caring person and has even called me a couple of times at home. Should I tell my doctor about being in the prison camp? I have previously been too shy to tell her.

Expert Answers

Jennifer Serafin, N.P. is a registered nurse and geriatric nurse practitioner at the Jewish Homes for the Aged in San Francisco.

Reading through your letter, let me first say that I just want to convey my deepest sympathy for you being a prison camp survivor. Since I frequently work with actual Holocaust survivors, I can tell you first-hand that being a prison camp survivor takes a horrible psychological and physical toll on a person, no matter how long ago it happened. My patients still experience a variety of symptoms from their days in captivity, even though this happened to them over 70 years ago.

There have been many studies on all kinds of prison camp survivors that detail the effects this kind of treatment can cause. First and foremost would be the psychological damage. Many survivors have a kind of post-traumatic stress disorder, with vivid dreams, anxiety, and frequent panic attacks. Furthermore, depression and anxiety disorders are very common in survivors. Regarding other health conditions, nutritional disorders in younger years can definitely lead to problems in older age, like osteoporosis. Also, stomach problems, like poor digestion, diarrhea, constipation, and abdominal pains can also be common in survivors. This could be related to the nutritional deficiencies, or it may have a psychological component (for example, a "nervous stomach").

Regarding your situation, you are reluctant to tell your doctor about an terrible experience that happened in your life almost 70 years ago. Perhaps you are a little anxious about how they would take it, as you probably have trust issues around people you don't know very well. I can tell you that your doctor will not judge you or think less of you for surviving that kind of ordeal. It will help them to know what you have been through in your past, so that they can continue to give you good emotional support. Your doctor sounds so caring, especially with calling you at home, so I would let them know when you feel the time is right. Good luck!


Being a Geriatric Nurse Practitioner, I am not at all familiar about books on childhood malnutrition and nervous disorders. What I would recommend would be to try doing some internet searches on the subjects, using medical websites like Medscape, WebMD, or the Mayo Clinic site. Do searches on each site using the keywords "childhood malnutrition" and "childhood nervous disorders". I think you will find a great deal of data on these subjects that you can review and read about. Check out some of the research articles, as you may find that some of the authors of these studies have written books about these subjects as well.

Community Answers

A fellow caregiver answered...

I would like to know where I can go to find this in a book so I can read about this. My Physical Therapist suggested this because she is a good person and understands this although never have been thru this. Just the way she talks to me and assures me that my lower back can be rectified is reason enough to trust her. I dont trust phyciaters or people who are not open for this. I have talked to different people in Holland where I have lived for 12 years as a teenager, and at school I was really being teased for being so skinny amongst these big large and big Dutch girls. If you can find me a book on malnutrition or nervous disorders as a child of four or five, can you recommend this to me? My many thanks for your understanding. Inez JV

A fellow caregiver answered...

I was born in the 1930s and have 4 siblings. As a result of the depression aftermath, my father lost his job and was unemployed for several years. Although he worked at whatever part-time jobs he could find, we were unable to have food on the table for several days at a time. I did not see a dentist nor a doctor until I was 7 yrs old and the govt provided this service to school aged children. I was 10 years old before I had regular food on the table. I am now 80 and in good health, do not take medication for anything, have a nervous stomach (but not severely), maintain my weight, splurge on eating once a week (my compulsive desire and probably do to the lack of food when young) but seldom drink anything more harmful than 2 cups of coffee daily. My one health problem was and is dental. However, my dentist recommended capping all my teeth when I was in my 30's. I followed his advice and am happy to say, I still have my teeth. I contribute my good health to genetics and the lack of food while young, as it prevented me from becoming obese and taught me to stay alert to good health practices!

Pavelina answered...

The deprivations I experienced when a child are very similar to those of the previous responder. I suffered from malnutrition and anemia and was put in a children's convalescent home when I was 11 because I was no longer strong enough to go to school. I stayed there for 8 months, after which I was quite healthy except for aching joints. Our family's economic situation began to improve and we ate regularly after that. Except for pulling two molars when I finally saw a dentist at age 15, the early deprivation has not left any discernible effects, except that, like the responder, I've never been able to refuse free food! However, I began to suffer from systemic arthritis at 47 and am now, at 76, too crippled to walk, but I suspect this ailment is inherited from my Mother, not caused by early malnutrition. answered...

I too have osteoporosis. They always say drink more milk, take calciums, etc. I grew up in the 50's in an upper middle class home. I always had food and drank milk at EVERY meal. Still, I have osteoporosis. I don't think it has much to do with nutrition. Maybe it's genes.

Beatbreastcancer answered...

To the original questioner, I would say yes! Please tell your doctor, especially if she has been so available to you that she would call you at home. Any information you can give her about your past health concerns is of value to her, especially the conditions inside prison camps. Congratulations on surviving! You're obviously not a quitter! Talking about terrible things in your past can be hard for many people; maybe you don't want people to think you're wanting sympathy or pity, maybe what you did to survive seems embarassing to you now, or maybe some of the things that happened are really difficult to relive through telling other people.

I'm not a doctor or anything, but we are seeing a lot right now of how improper nutrition when we're young can impact so much of our health as we get older; too much salt, sugar, fats, sun, lack of crucial vitamins, minerals, fluids, etc. I don't know how much of what you went through is affecting your health now, but I'm sure that at least some of your problems are the results of your lack of proper nutrition. Please tell your doctor.

oldfarmer, I don't know, but I do know that too much caffeine over a long period of time can be bad for your bones. Maybe you drank a lot of coffee or strong tea? Of course, some of it is genes; there are lots of people who don't do the right health things, yet they live to great ages and are healthy as can be!!