HCEO recently met with HI network member Meghan Azad to discuss her work studying the developmental origins of chronic disease in children. Primarily these diseases are allergy, asthma, and obesity, and Azad looks at them from a life course perspective. She notes that while researchers have long identified these three areas as the main chronic diseases of children, their implications extend into later life.
"We're taking a really broad view of that," she says. "Genes are not the whole answer. These conditions have really exploded in the last generation."
She notes that her team looks at a variety of environmental factors, such as air pollution, stress, the home environment, and nutrition.
Much of Azad's recent research is on breastfeeding, with a focus on infant feeding patterns and milk composition. Azad has a background as both a biochemist and geneticist as well as in epidemiology, and she incorporates all this knowledge into her work.
Azad notes that her lab sees huge disparities in breastfeeding rates. "We see, for example, that the moms with lower education and of certain ethnicities have lower breastfeeding rates. So how is that being propagated and how is that affecting if it's causing lower breastfeeding rates, then what impact does that have on the infant's microbiome and their health?"
She points out that one study has found an encouraging piece of evidence. New mothers who leave the hospital exclusively breastfeeding have much longer-term duration of breastfeeding overall. "Those first two days are a critical window, and we can probably reduce some of those disparities in breastfeeding rates if we just focus on that period, and help those new moms in those first couple days," she says.
Azad is an Assistant Professor of Pediatrics and Child Health at the University of Manitoba.