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Thursday, 19 April, 2001, 23:10 GMT 00:10 UK
Early growth linked to heart disease
Baby's growth may affect later health
Babies whose growth fails to follow normal patterns in the early years of life may be more prone to heart disease, scientists have found.

A team from the University of Southampton and the National Public Health Institute, Helsinki, Finland, found a strong link between growth during childhood and the development of coronary heart disease in late life.

They found three types of child were at particular risk of developing heart disease:

  • those whose growth was slow before birth
  • those who grew slowly during the first year of life
  • thin babies whose weight accelerated rapidly after the age of one
The researchers examined the infant and childhood growth of 4630 men of whom 357 were either admitted to hospital with coronary heart disease or who died of the disease.

This research highlights how diet and physical activity in our formative years can affect heart health in later life

Professor Sir Charles George, British Heart Foundation
Professor David Barker, of the Medical Research Council's Environmental Epidemiology Unit at the University of Southampton, told BBC News Online that if none of the babies in the study had been born thin, all had achieved average height and weight at one year old the rate of heart disease in later life would have been halved.

He said slow growth in the womb was likely to re-programme metabolism so that babies in later life were likely to have high blood pressure and problems metabolising sugar, which would leave them vulnerable to diabetes.

Poor nutrition

Professor Barker said slow growth in the first year of life was probably related to poor nutrition and could make the body more prone to problems with high cholesterol - another risk factor for heart disease.

He said: "The liver might adopt a frugal behaviour and start to secrete high levels of cholesterol in an attempt to maintain the circulating levels required to manufacture healthy cell membranes."

Children who were born thin had less muscle than average. If they put on weight rapidly after the first year of life, it was likely that they would end up carrying an unhealthily high level of fat relative to muscle.

Professor Barker said: "Our study shows the importance of the mother's body composition and diet before and during pregnancy.

"It also re-emphasises the need for breastfeeding and to protect a child from infection in early life."

Professor Sir Charles George, Medical Director of the British Heart Foundation, said: "These are important findings which provide further evidence supporting the BHF's concern's about childhood nutrition.

"This research highlights how diet and physical activity in our formative years can affect heart health in later life."

The research is published in the British Medical Journal.

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