Pudgy babies have the edge

Recent studies indicate that the greater the weight of babies at birth, the less prone they are to heart disease during their riotous adult years

Published: Friday 15 April 1994

-- NOT ONLY are chubby babies adorable, scientists now say they are less prone during adulthood to disorders such as heart disease, high blood pressure and diabetes. Recent studies indicate that the nutritional status of the developing foetus and that of the infant in the early stages of growth have an influence on such disorders (The Lancet Vol 343, No 8892, British Medical Journal, Vol 307, No 6918).

The first evidence of this came from two surveys undertaken in the UK. A team of researchers at the Medical Research Council's Environmental Epidemiology Unit at the University of Southampton, led by D J P Barker, traced records of birth weights and weights a year later of 5,654 males born between 1911 and 1930. The researchers found that the death rates from heart disease declined in children with the highest weights.

These results were supported by another survey of 1,586 infants pioneered by Barker, which found a relationship between birth weight and death from cardiovascular disease. Experiments on animals have also corroborated these findings. Retarded foetal growth in guinea pigs, for example, leads to life-long elevation of blood pressure.

Scientists says that the environment inside the womb has a great influence on foetal growth as it determines the quality and rate of supply of nutrients and oxygen to the foetus. Undernutrition restricts the growth of the foetus by causing changes in placental and foetal hormone secretion. If these alterations persist, or if the foetal tissues are not adequately sensitive to the hormones circulating in the blood, the organs or tissues could have abnormal structure and function, leading to diseases in adult life.

In another study, Denny Vagero of Stockholm University and David Leon of the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine surveyed birth weights of Swedish male twins and the relationship with heart disease. Although the researchers did not find an increased incidence of heart disease in twins, they found that the shorter of the two had a higher susceptibility to heart disease. They conclude that nutritional status and other social factors in the first year after birth also play an important role in the incidence of heart disease.

Another survey of women led by Barker, however, found no relation between the weight of the one-year-old female and a woman's predilection for heart disease in adulthood. The researchers, nevertheless, add that women who are heavier at birth are less prone to these ailments.

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