Good heart health begins in infancy

Jo Parkes
Wednesday, January 27, 2016

Rapid weight gain in a child’s early years could increase their heart attack and stroke risk as adults, a study has found.

The US research, which looked at 957 children from birth, was inspired by a rising trend of high blood pressure in American children and adolescents.

The experts found that large hikes in body mass index, a measure of height related to weight, from birth to six months, and aged two to three, can lead to higher blood pressure when children are around eight-years-old - which is linked to health problems in adulthood.

Every rising increment of BMI was associated with an increase of around 1 to 1.5 mmHg in systolic blood pressure - the pressure in the arteries when the heart beats.

‘Our findings suggest that more rapid gain in body mass index during the first six post-natal months and in the pre-school years may lead to higher systolic blood pressure in mid-childhood, regardless of size at birth,’ the researchers wrote in the US journal Hypertension.

Previous research had highlighted the role of babies’ weight gain on blood pressure but this study looked in detail at the timing of the pounds piling on, alongside general growth.

Steady increases are not considered a problem but the greater threat was associated with sudden weight surges that exceed height increases.

The study found that the association existed regardless of birth weight.

Dr Wei Perng, of the University of Michigan School of Public Health, who led the research, said it was ‘concerning’ that children were being affected, ‘because really hypertension is supposed to be a disease of later life’.

Separate research suggests breastfeeding to six months can help regulate early weight gain compared to formula, as well as withholding sugary drinks during weaning.

In the US, around one in 10 children and adolescents aged eight to 17 has hypertension or is considered at risk for developing it.

Professor Russell Viner, officer for health promotion for the Royal College of Paediatrics and Child Health, said that childhood obesity makes blood pressure problems in childhood and heart disease in adults more likely.

‘It’s an issue we in the UK are also only too familiar with,’ said Prof Viner. ‘One in three children are overweight or obese by the time they leave primary school.’

He added: 'Juggling parenthood and with all the other everyday tasks is tricky so it’s hardly surprising that often, the quick, easy option is chosen when it comes to keeping children fed. As a parent myself, I understand that!

'But it’s important for parents to remember that what they put in their child’s body now can shape their future so in order to ensure they are given the best start, I would recommend that they are fed healthy, balanced meals, of the appropriate portion size and that good eating habits are coupled with lots of opportunities for physical activity – for babies that means tummy-time and for toddlers it means at least three hours of physical activity a day.'

Prof Viner highlighted the Government’s long-awaited childhood obesity strategy due to be published next month, as an opportunity to avert a health time-bomb, and called for more help for families.

‘We would like to see health visiting programmes strengthened so parents are supported to breastfeed in those crucial early months and following that, supported to provide a healthy, balanced lifestyle as their baby gets older,’ added Prof Viner. ‘And as we know healthier babies are born to healthier mums, we’d also like to see healthcare professionals work with mums-to-be before they conceive and throughout their pregnancy to ensure they maintain a healthy lifestyle.

‘It is clear that we have the evidence that there is an obesity problem. We now wait in anticipation for Government’s childhood obesity strategy and hope our calls have been answered.’

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