5 key childhood risk factors can predict a heart attack or stroke 50 years later

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MELBOURNE, Australia — Life would be much easier if we all had our own medical crystal ball. The ability to see into our health futures could potentially save countless lives. While it isn’t quite a magic 8-ball, researchers from the Murdoch Children Research Institute (MCRI) say it may be possible to predict major heart problems decades before they ever occur.

Scientists have uncovered five key childhood risk factors predicting heart attack and stroke in adulthood. These findings are based on the world’s largest ever international prospective cardiovascular disease study.

The five risk factors are: body mass index (BMI), blood pressure, cholesterol, triglycerides (a variety of fat in blood), and smoking habits. These factors, particularly in combination in early childhood, displayed a clinical link to subsequent cardiovascular events starting around the age of 40.

“Despite the effect medical and surgical care has had on treating heart disease, the major impact will depend on effective preventive strategies. This study confirms that prevention should begin in childhood,” says senior study author, and Murdoch Children’s Professor, Terence Dwyer in a media release. “Longitudinal studies like these have been hampered by a lack of inclusion of comprehensive childhood data around body measurements, blood pressure, and blood lipids and a failure to follow-up at ages when cardiovascular disease becomes common.”

“Studying early life influences on disease has always been put in the too hard basket. But researchers in i3C took up this challenge because we knew the potential benefits to human health at the end could be very substantial.”

Risks factors could make someone 9 times more likely to have a heart attack

This was no small project. A total of 38,589 people from Australia, Finland, and the United States participated. Researchers tracked these individuals starting anywhere from ages three to 19, for a period of 35 to 50 years.

According to Prof. Dwyer, the analysis showed that the childhood presence of all five risk factors, individually or in combination, predicted both fatal and non-fatal cardiovascular events.

Additionally, more than half of the kids in the study went on to be at risk for a cardiovascular event as an adult. In extreme cases, some individuals were nine times more at risk than others with low cardiovascular risk profiles.

“While this evidence had not been available previously, the findings were not entirely surprising as it had been known for some time that children as young as five already showed early signs of fatty deposits in arteries. This new evidence justified a greater emphasis on programs to prevent the development of these risk factors in children. Clinicians and public health professionals should now start to focus on how this might best be achieved,” Prof. Dwyer concludes.

“While interventions in adulthood like improving diet, quitting smoking, being more active, and taking appropriate medications to reduce risk factors are helpful, it is likely that there is much more that can be done during childhood and adolescence to reduce lifetime risk of cardiovascular disease.”

The study is published in the New England Journal of Medicine.