Low birthweight increases heart disease risk, study finds

Low birthweight directly increases the risk of heart disease later in life, according to new research.

A baby’s weight at birth should also be considered a risk factor for heart and circulatory diseases.

Scientists say taking birthweight into account could help identify those who might benefit from more tailored support and monitoring, to manage their risk later in life.

Professor Sir Nilesh Samani, medical director at the British Heart Foundation, said information about patients’ birthweight could be a “valuable tool to help doctors build up a better picture of patients’ risk of heart disease and identify those who could benefit from closer monitoring or targeted intervention”.

The new research, part-funded by the British Heart Foundation, found that low birthweight is directly associated with an increased risk of coronary artery disease, and that this relationship is independent of conditions in the womb.

A low birthweight is usually defined as less than 5lb 8oz (2.5kg).

A reduction in birthweight by approximately 17oz (480g) resulted in a 20% increased risk of heart disease, the research found.

The findings are being presented this weekend at the annual meeting of the European Society of Cardiology in Amsterdam.

The team of researchers, led by Dr Maddalena Ardissino, honorary clinical research fellow at the National Heart and Lung Institute, Imperial College London, and National Institute for Health and Care Research academic clinical fellow at the University of Cambridge, analysed data from nearly 300,000 participants.

Previous research has found an association between low birthweight and a higher risk of heart disease, but, until now, it was not known whether birthweight alone could directly raise the risk of developing heart disease.

Researchers found that, throughout life, systolic blood pressure – the pressure when the heart is pumping blood through the arteries – plays a central role in this relationship.

Closely monitoring and managing blood pressure could be a key strategy to help people born with a lower birthweight reduce their risk of heart disease over the course of their lifetime.

Dr Ardissino said: “Low birthweight is a common pregnancy complication. Beyond its many short-term risks, our research highlights how it can influence long-term cardiovascular health in an important way.

“Understanding how birthweight is linked to heart health, and the risk factors at play, is an important step in improving cardiovascular risk prediction and providing personalised preventive care.”