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Heart Disease Health Center

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Low Birth Weight Linked to Heart Risk

Higher White Blood Cell Count for Low-Birth-Weight Babies May Explain Heart Disease Risk
WebMD Health News
Reviewed by Louise Chang, MD

April 2, 2009 -- Low-birth-weight babies have been shown in numerous studies to have an elevated risk for heart disease in adulthood, and now a new study may help explain why.

Researchers from England's University of Manchester report that young adults in their study who were small at birth and during infancy had higher white blood cell counts, indicative of inflammation, than young adults born at a normal weight.

Inflammation is believed to play a pivotal role in heart and vascular disease and in other chronic diseases like diabetes.

Earlier studies suggest that as early as age 6, children born small for their gestational age have more white blood cells than children born at a normal weight.

Now the new research suggests that the association persists into early adulthood and probably beyond, study researcher Dexter Canoy, MD, PhD, tells WebMD.

"Our findings indicate that the link between poor growth early in life and these adult chronic diseases may involve inflammation as a common underlying factor," Canoy says.

Smallest Babies Had Most Inflammation

Canoy and colleagues were able to follow 5,619 residents of northern Finland from birth to age 31, using data from a national study of babies born in 1966.

They compared weight at birth and at 1 year of age to white blood cell counts at age 31; the smallest babies and those whose early growth was slowest had the highest white blood cell counts.

The association persisted even after the researchers took into account heart disease and diabetes risk factors including blood pressure, cholesterol, insulin resistance, obesity, and smoking.

The researchers will continue to follow the people in the study to find out if they actually end up having more heart disease, diabetes, or other diseases that have been linked to both low birth weight and inflammation.

"These diseases typically occur much later in life, so we hope to follow these subjects for decades," he says.

The study is published in the Journal of Clinical Endocrinology & Metabolism.

'Thrifty Phenotype' Hypothesis

The observation that poor fetal growth contributes to chronic disease in adulthood was first proposed in the 1980s by U.K. researcher David J. Barker of the University of Southampton.

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