By Peter Wood
at the BA Festival
Scientists say changes in small blood vessels in children could be used to predict the onset of heart disease in later life.
Changes in blood vessels can identify those at risk
Experts from the Institute of Cardiovascular Research in Dundee say warning signs can be identified in children as young as 11.
They told the BA Science Festival in Exeter the changes could be seen long before heart disease develops.
The finding could help doctors offer children better advice, they said.
Researchers, led by Dr Faisal Khan, studied the health and performance of small blood vessels, known as micro-vessels, in a group of 11-14 year olds from the Dundee area.
The random group of youngsters taken from a previous health study showed no clinical signs of ill health. However, the research revealed that 20% were already experiencing deterioration in their micro-vascular health.
Blood vessels are lined with endothelium, which manipulates blood flow through contraction or dilation. Under normal circumstances, this dynamic tissue reacts to ensure free flow of blood through the body, thus minimising the chance of clots and blockages.
Problems in the cells that make up endothelium can lead to progressive hardening and narrowing of blood vessels, called atherosclerosis, which can ultimately lead to cardiovascular diseases.
In the Dundee study, drugs were placed on the skin to trigger dilation of the blood vessels, and a laser used to detect blood flow.
Dr Khan found a strong correlation between endothelial dysfunction and raised blood glucose levels in the children, or with greater than average amounts of fat around the middle of their bodies.
None of the children were diabetic or had any other symptoms that might indicate cardiovascular problems.
Dr Khan told the conference: "There is now compelling evidence for the association between endothelial dysfunction and the risk of developing atherosclerosis.
"Given this relationship, endothelial dysfunction can be considered as a predictive marker of cardiovascular status."
Identifying children at risk of cardiovascular disease later in life would allow steps to be taken early to curtail development, he argued.
"If people suffer from endothelial dysfunction they are probably more likely to go on to develop either heart attack or stroke," he said.
"My guess is that it's probably going to be a stronger predictor [than blood sugar or cholesterol monitoring] because the endothelial cells are going to be the first cells affected by any changing disease process, and they're fundamental to the way blood vessels work."
Belinda Linden, Head of Medical Information at the British Heart Foundation said: "In the UK, more than one in five children are overweight by the time they are only six years old, and only around half of all children do enough exercise.
"If trends of increasing obesity and inactivity continue, problems like narrowed arteries that can lead to cardiovascular disease (CVD) may occur in ever younger patients."
She added: "This study highlights that it is never too early for parents to encourage their children to adopt a healthy lifestyle and lower their risk of developing CVD in later life."