Heart disease signs in newborns: an interview with Dr Michael Skilton, University of Sydney

Michael Skilton ARTICLE IMAGE

What are the main signs of heart disease in newborns?

Thickening of the walls of the main arteries is the best indicator of poor cardiovascular health in healthy young children.

Are the signs of heart disease in newborns the same as in adults?

Yes, arterial wall thickening is also a sign of poor cardiovascular health in adults, and predicts the risk of having a heart attack or stroke in the future.

How many newborns are born with signs of heart disease?

We are only just beginning to identify the early life and parental factors that can influence the health of the blood vessels in young children.

For instance, we know that newborns who have low birth weight have thicker arterial walls on average, however, beyond this group we have little evidence for or against other potential risk factors.

How did your research into signs of heart disease in newborns originate?

Having an overweight or obese mother is likely to place the growing fetus under a certain amount of stress while in the womb. Obesity is also a powerful risk factor for heart disease in adults.

Accordingly, we thought that having an overweight or obese mother may well lead to poorer cardiovascular health in newborns.

What did your research involve?

We recruited mothers early in pregnancy, when they first visited the hospital for an antenatal visit, and then followed their pregnancy through until the birth of their child.

Before they left the hospital, we did an ultrasound of the newborn to measure the thickness of the main blood vessel in the abdomen (the aorta).

What did your research find?

We found that the children of overweight or obese mothers had thicker arterial walls than did the children of healthy weight mothers, and that this was the case even after we took into account the birth weight of the children.

Did your recent research find that arterial thickening is dependent on a child’s weight at birth?

We have previously shown that a child’s weight at birth is associated with arterial thickening, with smaller newborns having thicker arterial walls.

Our most recent study was not designed to look at the effect of birth weight directly.

Is it possible for newborns with signs of heart disease to reverse these changes?

There are a number of ways that people can alter their lifestyle in order to decrease their general risk of having a heart attack or stroke, such as eating a healthy diet, maintaining a healthy weight, and being physically active.

Are children of overweight or obese mothers at a higher risk of heart attacks and strokes independent of their weight as an adult?

We don’t know the answer to this question; however, our results suggest that this may be the case.

What impact do you think this research will have?

Women of childbearing age should already be trying to maintain a healthy weight, for their own health.

Our finding that their weight may also affect the health of their baby, may give them extra incentive to do so.

What further research needs to be done in this field?

This research needs to be confirmed in a larger population. Identifying a means by which to directly improve the health of the blood vessels in affected children should also be a priority.

Where can readers find more information?

A list of our relevant publications can be found at http://sydney.edu.au/medicine/people/academics/profiles/mskilton.php

About Dr Michael Skilton

Dr Skilton is a vascular physiologist at the University of Sydney. He has previously held post-doctoral positions in Lyon, France and in Melbourne, Australia.

He has published papers in high ranking journals such as the Lancet, Journal of the American College of Cardiology, Biological Psychiatry, Neurology, Stroke, Hypertension, American Journal of Clinical Nutrition and Pediatrics.

He has ongoing collaborations with research teams in Australia, France, and Finland.

April Cashin-Garbutt

Written by

April Cashin-Garbutt

April graduated with a first-class honours degree in Natural Sciences from Pembroke College, University of Cambridge. During her time as Editor-in-Chief, News-Medical (2012-2017), she kickstarted the content production process and helped to grow the website readership to over 60 million visitors per year. Through interviewing global thought leaders in medicine and life sciences, including Nobel laureates, April developed a passion for neuroscience and now works at the Sainsbury Wellcome Centre for Neural Circuits and Behaviour, located within UCL.

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