05/08/2011 04:25 pm ET Updated Jul 08, 2011

The Health of a Nation and the Height of its Mothers

As mothers, we want the best for our children. We all share a hope that our children will be better off than we were, or the generation before us. But are they?

Across the globe, whether you live in Africa or the United States, the attained height of its mothers can foretell the economic trend for that country. According to a recent Harvard study, a woman's attained height is a strong indicator of socioeconomic status, and the health, well-being and economic potential of her children. Of the 54 countries included in the study, women's height declined in 14 countries, all in Africa, and stayed the same in 21, including four South American nations. Researchers attribute the declines or stagnation to poor nutrition, exposure to infections and other environmental factors that may stunt or hamper children's growth. In almost all countries studied, poorer women were more likely to be shorter than their wealthier neighbors.

For sure, in less developed countries where poverty and hunger are prevalent, poor access to maternal health care and malnutrition are generally contributing factors. Malnutrition brought on by inadequate access to needed micronutrients such as iron, vitamin A, folic acid and iodine reduces productivity, learning capacity and overall health. Iron deficiency is the most common form of malnutrition, and the most common cause of anemia. Throughout much of the developing world, maternal anemia rates are as high as 75 percent and account for as much as much as half of all maternal deaths in those countries. A study in Bangladesh led researchers to conclude that anemia had played a secondary role in nearly all cases of maternal death.

Assuring quality maternal nutrition is as close as we can come to a clear pathway out of the poverty trap. This intergenerational cycle can be broken by improving access to quality nutrition -- meaning enhancing not just quantity but the quality of diets. We can improve the nutrition of poor women in developing countries by micronutrient supplementation, diversifying their diet to include healthier foods, and fortification of staple foods with critical micronutrients. Initiatives such as adding folic acid to wheat flour in Africa, vitamin A in cooking oil in Indonesia, or iron to soy sauce in China help ensure that we are improving the health and well-being of the mother herself, as well as that of her children and future generations.

We can amplify the power and effects of these interventions by delivering them during the critical 1,000 day window, from pregnancy to two years of age. Incredibly, half of the growth failure accrued by two years of age occurs in uterus. During this critical window of opportunity nutrition has significant and lasting impact on growth, brain development and ability to ward off disabilities, infection and disease. We must target interventions during this time to ensure that children thrive, grow and reach their full potential. The life time benefits of prevention of malnutrition are undeniable. Both common sense and respected research tells us that preventing malnutrition is better than treating it.

Instead of passing on improved opportunity, health and security to their sons and daughters, poor mothers in low income countries are transmitting, generational growth failure due to poor maternal nutrition. The greater tragedy may very well be we have the knowledge to do better. We know who is in need of critical nutrition interventions. We know when the most essential time is to provide quality nutrition. And we know that small changes in woman's attained height generate significant returns for her children, her village and her nation.

Our children reach new heights on the shoulders of their mothers. Raise the mothers and the children will follow.

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