MONDAY, June 30, 2014 (HealthDay News) -- Young children who are severely malnourished may be at greater risk for having high blood pressure later in life, new research suggests.
Poor nutrition starting before birth to the age of 5 may affect the development of the heart, the study authors reported.
"If nutritional needs are not met during this time, when structures of the body are highly susceptible to potentially irreversible change, it could have long-term consequences on heart anatomy and blood flow later in life," study senior author Terrence Forrester, UWI Solutions for Developing Countries at the University of the West Indies, Jamaica, said in an American Heart Association news release.
"We are concerned that millions of people globally who suffer malnutrition before or after birth are at increased risk of hypertension in later life," Forrester said.
However, it's important to note that while this study showed an association between malnourishment in childhood and a higher blood pressure as an adult, it didn't prove that too little food in childhood was the cause of the higher blood pressure.
The researchers examined 116 adults who were malnourished as children growing up in Jamaica. Specifically, they assessed their height, weight and blood pressure. The researchers also performed echocardiograms or imaging tests to evaluate their heart function.
The researchers compared the results with information compiled on 45 men and women who were not malnourished as children. All of the adults in the study were between ages 20 and 39 years.
The study revealed the adults who had not been adequately nourished as children were at greater risk for high blood pressure. Those who grew up without enough food had higher diastolic blood pressure -- that's the bottom number in a blood pressure reading.
Adults who were malnourished as children also had greater resistance to blood flow in smaller blood vessels. And, their hearts pumped less efficiently.
The researchers warned that high blood pressure is a major risk factor for heart disease and stroke.
Although childhood hunger is most prevalent in developing countries, the U.S. Department of Agriculture reported that 8.3 million children lived in homes where there may not have been enough food to meet their needs in 2012.
The study was published online June 30 in the journal Hypertension.
The World Health Organization provides more information on childhood nutrition.