By Robert Preidt
FRIDAY, Jan. 24, 2014 (HealthDay News) -- Children who were small during the early stages of fetal development may be at increased risk for heart problems, a new study indicates.
The findings suggest that the first three months of pregnancy may be a crucial period for heart health later in life, the Dutch researchers said. They noted that the first trimester includes a period of rapid development when the heart and other major organs begin to form.
The investigators assessed nearly 1,200 children at age 6 for cardiovascular risk factors such as amount and distribution of body fat, blood pressure and cholesterol and insulin levels.
Compared to children who were largest during the first trimester of pregnancy, those who were smallest had significantly more total fat and fat around the abdomen, higher blood pressure and unhealthy cholesterol levels, the study found.
Being smaller during the first trimester was also associated with an increased risk of having a number of these cardiovascular risk factors during childhood, according to the study published online Jan. 23 on bmj.com.
But the study only uncovered a link between small size during the first trimester and potential heart problems. It did not prove a cause-and-effect connection.
Further studies are needed to identify why smaller size during the first trimester seems associated with increased risk of heart problems in childhood, as well as the long-term consequences, concluded Vincent Jaddoe, a professor of pediatric epidemiology at the Erasmus University Medical Center in Rotterdam, and colleagues.
This study adds to growing evidence that slow fetal growth is associated with an increased risk of cardiovascular disease and other health problems in later life, Gordon Smith and Catherine Aiken, from the University of Cambridge in England, wrote in an accompanying editorial.
But before rushing to intervene, "we need a deeper understanding of the strength, nature and mechanisms of the reported associations," the researchers added.