Faster growing babies are at greater risk of heart disease and stroke

Medical Research Council (MRC) and Institute of Child Health scientists say that babies who grow fast are at greater risk of heart disease and stroke in later life. Because breast-fed babies grow less rapidly than those fed formula milk, the work strongly reinforces the message that breast feeding is best.

The conclusions are drawn from the extensive studies carried out by the team over the last 20 years into high blood pressure, obesity, diabetes and now cholesterol.  The researchers’ full conclusions are laid out in a viewpoint article published today (Friday 14 May 2004) in The Lancet, along with their research paper on cholesterol and cardiovascular disease which completes the overall picture.

Prompted by evidence in animals, Dr Atul Singhal and Professor Alan Lucas, conducted unique randomised trials to determine the long-term health effects of early nutrition in humans.

They compared the health of adolescents who were fed as babies on breast milk with babies who were fed on formulas of varying nutritional value. The results showed that, irrespective of the baby’s weight when it was born, the faster the growth, the greater the risk of heart disease and stroke in adult life.

They found that rapid growth early in life, promoted by nutrient enriched diets, programmed the babies’ biology, making them prone to certain health conditions which increased their risk of heart disease and stroke in later life. These conditions include obesity, high blood pressure, high cholesterol and tendency to diabetes.

Because the size of the effect was so large, the scientists conclude that rapid growth early in life is one of the most important, but potentially controllable, influences on adult health.

Lead scientist, Professor Alan Lucas, Director of the MRC’s Childhood Nutrition Research Centre, said:

“A number of recent theories about the importance of early life for later health have been based on observations. But randomised clinical trials are the best way to provide proof and determine the best health practices.

“Using the latter approach we assigned babies to different diets and then followed them into adult life. Such studies had not been done before and have taken us over 20 years.

“Now that the results have come through they have greatly changed our understanding of the importance of early nutrition and growth for long-term health.

“The evidence is very strong and supports a clear message. Slower growth as a baby reduces the risk of heart disease and stroke in adult life and the best way to achieve this is to breastfeed.”

A recent survey of 1000 women by the Department of Health found that although many of the benefits of breastfeeding are well known, the UK has one of the lowest breastfeeding rates in Europe. Almost one third (29 per cent) of women in England and Wales never try to breastfeed, compared to two per cent in Sweden. Younger mothers in particular are less likely to breastfeed. Over 40 per cent of mothers under 24 never try.

Publication coincides with National Breastfeeding Awareness week (9-15 May)

For further information, or to arrange an interview with Professor Alan Lucas or Dr Atul Singhal, contact the MRC Press Office on 020 7637 6011.

For copies of the viewpoint article and the accompanying research paper please contact the Lancet press office on 020 7424 4949

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