Boys Live Dangerously in the Womb
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The growth of every human fetus is constrained by the limited capacity of the mother and placenta to deliver nutrients to it. At birth, boys tend to be longer than girls at any placental weight. Boy’s placentas may therefore be more efficient than girls, but may have less reserve capacity. In the womb boys grow faster than girls and are therefore at greater risk of becoming undernourished. Fetal undernutrition leads to small size at birth and cardiovascular disorders, including hypertension, in later life. We studied 2003 men and women aged around 62 years who were born in Helsinki, Finland, of whom 644 had hypertension: we examined their body and placental size at birth. In both sexes, hypertension was associated with low birth weight. In men, hypertension was also associated with a long minor diameter of the placental surface. The dangerous growth strategy of boys may be compounded by the costs of compensatory placental enlargement in late gestation. In women, hypertension was associated with a small placental area, which may reduce nutrient delivery to the fetus. In men, hypertension was linked to the mothers’ socioeconomic status, an indicator of their diets: in women it was linked to the mothers’ heights, an indicator of their protein metabolism. Boys’ greater dependence on their mothers’ diets may enable them to capitalize on an improving food supply, but it makes them vulnerable to food shortages. The ultimate manifestation of their dangerous strategies may be that men have higher blood pressures and shorter lives than women.