Objective: To assess the cardiovascular health, markers of cardiovascular aging and telomere length in survivors of the siege of Leningrad, who were either born during the siege or lived in the besieged city in their early childhood.
Methods: Survivors of the Leningrad siege (n = 305, 64-81 years) and a control group of age and sex-matched individuals (n = 51, 67-82 years) were examined in terms of a observational retrospective cohort study. All participants were interviewed regarding risk factors, cardiovascular diseases, and therapy. Blood pressure measurement, anthropometry, echocardiography, and electrocardiography were performed according to standard guidelines. Fasting lipids and glucose were measured. Relative telomere length was measured by quantitative PCR, and the ratio of telomere repeat copy number to single gene copy number (T/S) was calculated for each DNA sample.
Results: Survivors had lower anthropometric parameters (height, weight, and BMI) and higher high-density lipoprotein level. There were no significant differences in the prevalence of cardiovascular diseases and target organ damage between groups. However, survivors had shorter telomere length: T/S ratio 0.44 (0.25; 0.64) vs. controls 0.91 (0.47; 1.13) (P < 0.0001), both in men and women, with clear association with the period of famine in early life. Exposure to famine in childhood and intrauterine period of life was associated with a higher prevalence of hypertension and shorter telomere length.
Conclusion: Early-life famine, especially started in the intrauterine period and late childhood, may contribute to accelerated aging with telomere shortening in both sexes, but has no direct effect on the prevalence of cardiovascular diseases and risk factors after seven decades since exposure.