Low birth weight (LBW) is a risk factor for hypertension, stroke and coronary heart disease in adults. Mechanisms underlying cardiovascular disease may therefore be initiated in early life. Studies to investigate the initiating events and emergence of vascular risk markers in infancy and childhood have been an area of particular interest in recent years. The aim of this review is to focus on the early development of the human vascular tree in relation to LBW. Specific characteristics, including endothelial function, intima-media thickness, microvascular density, arterial dimensions and elasticity, will be discussed. LBW due to different causes--poor foetal growth or preterm birth--results in different patterns of altered development of the vascular system, which can already be seen in infancy. Follow-up studies in children and young adults indicate that vascular compromise in many ways persists in those born either small for gestational age or prematurely.
Conclusion: LBW is associated with structural and functional changes in the vascular tree, which have implications for cardiovascular health in adult life.