Health ministers explore creating a health chain reaction for life

For further information, contact:

Gunta Lazdane
Programme Manager for Sexual and Reproductive Health
WHO Regional Office for Europe
UN City, Marmorvej 51
2100 Copenhagen Ø, Denmark

Tina Kiaer
Communications Officer
WHO Regional Office for Europe
UN City, Marmorvej 51
2100 Copenhagen Ø, Denmark
Mobile: +45 30 36 37 36

Copenhagen and Minsk, 20 October 2015

The life-course approach, meaning looking at health through the life-cycle, will take centre stage for the first time in Europe at the WHO European Ministerial Conference on the Life-course Approach in the Context of Health 2020, to take place in Minsk, Belarus, on 21–22 October 2015. Ministers of health and representatives of the 53 Member States will join WHO experts to explore a new angle on policy-making, focusing on the developmental origins of health and disease and making a compelling case for policies that address health at the transitions in life, across ages and generations. At the Conference, experts will address the following questions.

  • Can adverse experiences in childhood plant the seed for disease later in life?
  • What role does the pregnant mother's mental and physical well-being play in a child's development?
  • Is it ever too late to improve health?
  • How important is a happy childhood?
  • How important is it to feel in control of one's life?
  • Does adversity in early life alter brain development and DNA?

"We know that most of a person's brain cell development has taken place by age three so a good start in life plays an enormous role in shaping a child's future" said Dr Zsuzsanna Jakab, WHO Regional Director for Europe. "Although a good start can create a health chain reaction that lasts a lifetime, health can be created at any time. If we are serious about creating healthier populations, we must understand the mechanisms supporting the ability to adapt and self-manage," Dr Jakab added. "Research has shown that building emotional resilience and getting maximum benefit from education are the most important markers for good health and well-being throughout life. We cannot afford to only focus on health through the health sector – intersectoral partnerships are crucial to success in creating health."

Looking at health throughout the life-course in a holistic way could help policy-makers to understand the associations between early life experiences and exposure and later disease. This will make it possible to develop interventions that can optimize health and well-being and maintain physical and cognitive functions at all stages of life.

The life-course approach covers how physical or social exposures during gestation, childhood, adolescence, young adulthood and later adult life have long-term effects on health and the risk of disease. Several countries have already successfully made use of this approach in their policy-making.

  • In the United Kingdom, Sure Start Children's Centres aim to improve the quality of diet, well-being and physical activity levels of women of childbearing age from disadvantaged backgrounds. The intervention has a protective effect on women's sense of control and self-efficacy.
  • Estonia has introduced comprehensive sexuality education and made youth-friendly services available. Among other health benefits, this has resulted in a decrease of sexually transmitted infections, HIV and unintended pregnancies. 
  • In Ireland, the Irish Age Friendly Cities and Counties Programme has brought together a broad group of heads of organizations across government departments and agencies, older people's nongovernmental organizations, service providers, business leaders, and academics active in the field of ageing. All counties are now committed to this work, which has greatly reduced previous fragmentation while catalysing a new focus on positive ageing in Ireland.

At the global level, the Baby-friendly Hospital Initiative of WHO and the United Nations Children's Fund encourages hospitals to introduce breastfeeding policies and educate staff to promote and support breastfeeding. Benefits of exclusive breastfeeding include decreasing the risk of childhood obesity, heart disease, diabetes mellitus, diarrhoea, respiratory infections and allergies and support the development of a higher intelligence quotient.

The Conference in Minsk will address these complex issues and start a process of developing polices to maximize the peak in early years of life, maintain this peak in adolescence and minimize the loss during later years of life.