A healthy heart needs a healthy start

We all know that eating well, exercising and avoiding smoking can help reduce our risk of heart disease. However, it’s less known that our heart health is affected by the conditions in our mothers’ wombs before our birth.

There are well-established relationships between our body weights at birth and our heart health throughout our lives. The smaller we are at birth, the higher our blood pressure is and the chances of suffering from cardiovascular disease are greater.

Now, Hudson Institute researchers have shown that a common complication of pregnancy, which is often unnoticed, can contribute to the pathological processes that underly heart disease.

Findings from Associate Professor Tim Moss, published in Clinical Science, show that inflammation in the womb can worsen the development of atherosclerosis (the build-up of fatty deposits in the arteries) in adult mice.

Atherosclerosis is driven by inflammation in the walls of our arteries. Immune cells infiltrate the arterial walls and cause the build-up of fatty plaques. If the plaques grow large enough to block our arteries, or dislodge and block other blood vessels, they can cause heart attack or stroke. Things that cause inflammation after birth, like infections and poor health, are known to drive the development of atherosclerosis in adults.

A/Prof Moss and his team have shown, for the first time, that inflammation in the womb worsens atherosclerosis in later life.

A/Prof Moss said identifying infants exposed to inflammation in the womb could be critical to reducing heart disease.

“As many as 20 per cent of infants are exposed to inflammation in the womb. With a birth rate of 300,000 each year in Australia, up to 60,000 babies could have an increased risk of developing heart disease later in life,” A/Prof Moss said.

“The inflammation before birth that we studied usually shows no signs in the mother or baby, so it’s often overlooked. As well as the effects on atherosclerosis, we observed chorioamnionitis – a silent inflammatory process in the womb during pregnancy that affects the development of babies’ lungs, brains and other organs. We need ways to identify these babies, so that we can minimise the adverse effects of inflammation before birth, preventing poor health later in life.”

FACTS

Inflammation is our body’s response to injury or infection.

Artherosclerosis is one of the leading causes of coronary heart disease and occurs when fatty deposits build up in our arteries.

Artherosclerosis is most serious when it leads to reduced or blocked blood supply to the heart (increasing risks of heart attack) or the brain (increasing risks of stroke).

Coronary heart disease kills 20,000 Australians annually.

Collaborators: Murdoch Children’s Research Institute; Radboud University Medical centre Nijmegen The Netherlands;  Universitas Indonesia, Indonesia, University of Melbourne

Funders: NHMRC, National Heart Foundation, Victorian Government

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