The long preclinical phase of atherosclerosis involves the interaction of genetic and environmental factors that modulate the progression of disease from early life. A variety of noninvasive tests have been used to study the arterial phenotype of childhood, allowing identification of arterial alterations long before clinical symptoms of cardiovascular (CV) disease become apparent. These techniques have improved our understanding of the evolution of atherosclerosis, indentifying three major developmental factors which influence the future risk of CV disease in childhood: prenatal growth, early postnatal growth and childhood obesity.
Specific changes in arterial properties and increased values of blood pressure are detectable in children with low birth weight, suggesting that intrauterine growth retardation could programme the future risk of CV disease. However, an accelerated growth rate in infancy and early childhood is often associated with low birth weight and with specific vascular alterations, making it difficult to distinguish the contribution of prenatal and postnatal growth patterns to later cardiovascular disease risk. Relationships between growth patterns and CV disease risk are further complicated by the link between rapid postnatal growth and later development of childhood overweight and obesity, conditions associated with early changes in vascular physiology and that potentially affect future CV outcome.
This article aims to provide an overview of evidence in support of fetal programming and growth acceleration hypotheses for adult CV disease. Specific attention is given to obesity-related vascular alterations and their effects on future CV disease risk. We also summarise current non-invasive approaches to investigate the precursors and early development of CV disease, emphasising their potential applications in childhood.