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Poor Children at Higher Heart Risk

Odds persist even if they grow up to be successful

FRIDAY, Oct. 11, 2002 (HealthDayNews) -- Children in lower-income families are more likely to grow up overweight and with high blood pressure, high cholesterol and insulin resistance, all of which make them more vulnerable to heart disease and stroke, a British study finds.

The risk factors picked up in childhood continue to dog those people, even if they grow up to be economically successful adults, says a report in tomorrow's issue of the British Medical Journal.

The finding accentuates the need to intervene decades before the first indicators of heart disease or stroke appear, says Debbie A. Lawlor, a lecturer in epidemiology at the University of Bristol and lead author of the report.

"There is cumulative evidence from this and other studies about early lifestyle factors to point to the need for affecting heart disease risk factors early in life, rather than taking adults who are at risk and doing the same thing with them," she says.

The results come from analysis of data about 4,286 older women in England, Scotland and Wales. They were asked about their social class in childhood and the present, and the information was correlated with tests for common cardiovascular risk factors.

Women who grew up in what the study called the "manual social class" were 23 percent more likely to have high blood pressure, 44 percent more likely to have elevated blood cholesterol, 68 percent more likely to be obese, and 33 percent more likely to have high insulin resistance, the researchers report. Moving up the socioeconomic ladder had only a slight effect on those numbers, they say.

"Animal studies show that environmental circumstances early in life affect development because many organs are still developing," Lawlor says. "So things that affect growth and development early in life have a long-term effect."

The study results come as no surprise to Barbara V. Howard, who chairs the American Heart Association nutrition committee.

"It is well known that lack of education and lack of economic means leads to poor eating habits and a less healthy lifestyle, and that this affects children as well as adults," says Howard, who is president of the MedStar Research Institute, which is part of the largest nonprofit health-care organization in the Baltimore area. "These children will be learning bad eating habits and will not be taught good health habits. There is more and more evidence that the effects of behavior in childhood extend into adulthood."

Bad early habits can be changed by some adults, Howard says. "A person may diet and exercise and not go on to have diabetes or heart disease," she says. "But it is frustrating to try to change 40- and 50-year-old adults after the bad habits become so ingrained. We have a much better chance if we start with children, teenagers and young adults."

What To Do

The elements of a healthy lifestyle for children and adults are outlined by the American Heart Association. October is Children's Health Month. Learn more about it from the National Institutes of Health.

SOURCES: Debbie A. Lawlor, Ph.D., lecturer, epidemiology, University of Bristol, England; Barbara V. Howard, Ph.D., chairwoman, American Heart Association nutrition committee, Baltimore; Oct. 12, 2002, British Medical Journal
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