Several previous studies have linked low birth weight to a greater likelihood for developing high blood pressure later in life.
But the new study is one of the first to link rapid growth among infants and young children to high blood pressure in adults, independent of birth weight.
The study appears in the October issue of the American Heart Association journal Hypertension.
"Rapid growth, especially during the first five months of live, was associated with small increases in blood pressure that were probably not due to chance," researcher Yoav Ben-Shlomo, MD, PhD, tells WebMD.
Early Growth and Blood Pressure
To better understand early-life influences on adult blood pressure, Ben-Shlomo and colleagues from the University of Bristol in England analyzed data from a growth study involving adults born in two small towns in South Wales between 1972 and 1974.
Growth measurements were recorded 14 times between birth and age 5, and adult blood pressure was assessed through screening when the participants were in their mid-20s.
The data suggested that more rapid weight gain between birth and 5 months and again between roughly 2 and 5 years of age was associated with a greater risk of higher systolic blood pressure in early adulthood.
Rapid growth in the first few months of life, but not later, was linked to higher diastolic blood pressure. The systolic pressure is the top number in a blood pressure reading. The diastolic pressure is the bottom number.
This association remained even when the researchers adjusted for known influences on blood pressure, including smoking and obesity.
"This study shows that both birth weight and the immediate postnatal period may be important in determining both systolic blood pressure and diastolic blood pressure and, hence, the future risk of ... hypertension," Ben-Shlomo and colleagues write.
Predicting Future Risk
While the findings could have major implications for the study of high blood pressure and related chronic disease, they should not cause undue alarm to parents, Ben-Shlomo says.
"The impact [of rapid early growth] in the individual is not that big," he says. "There are a lot of other influences on blood pressure that are much more important, including whether someone takes regular exercise and whether they are obese."
The findings may prove useful at a public health level for predicting the future burden of hypertension-related disease, he adds.
"In the past the focus has been only on what we do in adulthood," he says. "This suggests that we may need to look at prenatal, postnatal, and childhood influences as well if we really want to understand who is at risk for hypertension."
It is not clear how prenatal and early-life growth influences adult blood pressure, but it is increasingly clear that it does, fetal programming researcher Barbara T. Alexander, PhD, of the University of Mississippi Medical Center tells WebMD.
"Just a few decades ago the idea that the fetal environment played a role in later cardiovascular risk was all but unheard of," she says. "Now it is pretty widely accepted. And this study suggests that the months after birth may be just as critical."