Could malnutrition during childhood cause medical problems later in life?

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 Answer

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.