The impact of birth weight on cardiovascular disease risk in the Women's Health Initiative

Nutr Metab Cardiovasc Dis. 2016 Mar;26(3):239-45. doi: 10.1016/j.numecd.2015.10.015. Epub 2015 Nov 18.


Background and aims: Cardiovascular disease (CVD) is among the leading causes of morbidity and mortality worldwide. Traditional risk factors predict 75-80% of an individual's risk of incident CVD. However, the role of early life experiences in future disease risk is gaining attention. The Barker hypothesis proposes fetal origins of adult disease, with consistent evidence demonstrating the deleterious consequences of birth weight outside the normal range. In this study, we investigate the role of birth weight in CVD risk prediction.

Methods and results: The Women's Health Initiative (WHI) represents a large national cohort of post-menopausal women with 63,815 participants included in this analysis. Univariable proportional hazards regression analyses evaluated the association of 4 self-reported birth weight categories against 3 CVD outcome definitions, which included indicators of coronary heart disease, ischemic stroke, coronary revascularization, carotid artery disease and peripheral arterial disease. The role of birth weight was also evaluated for prediction of CVD events in the presence of traditional risk factors using 3 existing CVD risk prediction equations: one body mass index (BMI)-based and two laboratory-based models. Low birth weight (LBW) (<6 lbs.) was significantly associated with all CVD outcome definitions in univariable analyses (HR = 1.086, p = 0.009). LBW was a significant covariate in the BMI-based model (HR = 1.128, p < 0.0001) but not in the lipid-based models.

Conclusion: LBW (<6 lbs.) is independently associated with CVD outcomes in the WHI cohort. This finding supports the role of the prenatal and postnatal environment in contributing to the development of adult chronic disease.

Keywords: Barker hypothesis; Life course epidemiology; Metabolic syndrome; Proportional hazards model; Risk prediction; Self-reported birth weight.

Publication types

  • Research Support, N.I.H., Extramural

MeSH terms

  • Aged
  • Birth Weight*
  • Body Mass Index
  • Cardiovascular Diseases / epidemiology*
  • Cohort Studies
  • Female
  • Humans
  • Incidence
  • Infant, Low Birth Weight / metabolism*
  • Middle Aged
  • Postmenopause / metabolism
  • Pregnancy
  • Risk Factors
  • Self Report
  • Women's Health*