New study shows cardiovascular risk factors in childhood are predictive of heart events in adulthood

Doctor measures waist of an overweight boy in a medical clinic.

Risk factors for cardiovascular disease that are present in childhood are directly related to the onset of heart disease in adulthood, according to a study published in the New England Journal of Medicine. The findings underscore the value of preventive measures in childhood to keep heart disease at bay in older age, researchers say. 

Cardiovascular disease affects more than 126 million people per year worldwide and is the leading cause of death in the United States. Researchers have suspected for some time that the seeds of cardiovascular disease begin in childhood, but specific evidence linking childhood risk factors to clinical disease has been missing, until now. 

In the international study, researchers studied data from nearly 40,000 people followed from childhood (age 3-19 years) into early adulthood. The participants came from Finland, Australia, and five study centers in the United States. These study groups formed the International Childhood Cardiovascular Cohorts (i3C) consortium.  

The researchers found a link between childhood cardiovascular risk factors – such as body mass index, blood pressure, blood lipids, and cigarette smoking – and the development of cardiovascular events in adulthood, including heart attacks. About 75% of these events occurred before age 53, the researchers said. The study found that even slightly high levels of risk factors at a young age were linked to cardiovascular problems relatively early in life. 

The study was funded in part by the NHLBI.