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Friday, 12 February, 1999, 04:43 GMT
Heart disease risk of 'catch-up growth'
19.25 11-02-99 baby scales AC
Birth weight can affect the risk of coronary heart disease
Small babies who grow rapidly in their formative years are at increased risk of coronary heart disease (CHD), according to a study.

Low birth weight has been established as a risk factor for heart disease for some time, but the new study found that accelerated growth up to the age of seven increases it.

It found that death rates are higher in men whose weight "catches up" in early childhood.

The study suggests that programmes to reduce obesity, a significant risk factor for CHD, among boys may need to focus on those who had low birth weight or were thin at birth.

The study was carried out by researchers in Finland and the UK and their findings are published in the British Medical Journal.

Growth and weight

The researchers studied records of growth and weight for 3,641 men born in Helsinki between 1924 and 1933.

They report that the link between low birth weight and high death rates from coronary heart disease found in their study is consistent with findings from a UK study involving more than 13,000 men and a Swedish study of 7,000 men.

What is new in their finding is the link with "catch-up growth" in childhood.

They found that the men with the highest rates of CHD were thin at birth but by the age of seven their weight had "caught up", giving them an average or above average body mass.

They said this could be down to the effect of following poor nutrition in the womb with much better nutrition after birth.

Dangers

Dr David Barker, of the Medical Research Council Environmental Epidemiology Unit at Southampton University, led the UK team.

19.25 11-02-99 boys AC
Average weight boys may be at risk if they were small babies
He said the research means people will have to take a fresh approach to tackling obesity in the young as some would face more danger from being overweight than others.

At the moment, obesity and being overweight are defined by body mass index - the relation between height and weight. Children of a certain BMI are classed as obese.

But Dr Barker said his study suggested it was not the BMI alone that was important, but how the child got to that level.

"If you went into a school and you took out the most overweight 15% of boys and did something special to them, like give them more exercise, you'd be missing the point," he said.

"For most of those children the effects of being overweight are not very severe, it's just a tiny increase in risk of CHD.

"It's the ones who got there by accelerated weight gain rather than the ones who were great big babies and are now great big children."

Explanations

He said there were three possible explanations for the findings:

  • Thin babies are less muscular so their weight gain is likely to consist of fat; or
  • They have hormonal settings that drive the weight gain, and will continue to do so for the rest of their lives. This would be bad for the growth of their cardiovascular systems; or
  • There is something intrinsically bad about accelerated post-natal growth. This could be characterised by a smaller number of cells expanding rapidly, and perhaps disrupting the communication between cells.

However, few babies are born fat, he said. High birth weight indicates muscle and height except in those born to diabetic mothers.

Around seven or eight is the right time to look for weight-related health warnings. In future anybody looking for such danger signs should also examine the journey from birth to seven years old, he suggested.

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