(Reuters Health) - Economic challenges in childhood may be linked to the early development of thicker artery walls that are known to underlie many cases of cardiovascular disease, according to a new study from Australia.
Compared to kids from wealthier backgrounds, kids from low-income families and neighborhoods had thicker walls in the carotid arteries that provide blood to the brain.
The buildup of plaque and cells on the inner lining of arteries - known as the intima-media - narrows the passage for blood and is called atherosclerosis, said Dr. David Burgner of Melbourne University.
"So the intima-media thickness of the carotid artery is a good measure of the extent of atherosclerosis and it is easily measured by an ultrasound of the neck, even in young children," Burgner told Reuters Health in an email. "In adults, carotid intima-media thickness is used clinically to assess the risk of future cardiovascular disease."
Atherosclerosis can affect any artery. In the coronary arteries, advanced atherosclerosis can lead to heart attacks. In the carotid arteries, it can lead to stroke.
For the new study, children from 1,477 families were recruited into the study before their first birthday and examined every two years starting in 2004. The thickness of the children's carotid intima-media was evaluated in 2015.
When the researchers divided the children into four groups according to their family's economic background, they found that the most economically disadvantaged children were 46 percent more likely than children from the wealthiest families to have the thickest intima-media measurements.
The increased thickness means those children's veins work as if they're at least eight years older than they really are, the research team writes in the Journal of the American Heart Association.
Neighborhood economics were also tied to the condition of the children's artery walls, researchers found.
Social and economic status as a toddler was tied to the risk of thick artery walls as a adolescent.
"It was striking that the socioeconomic status so early in life was associated with increased carotid intima-media thickness by mid-childhood; this is not an age when cardiovascular disease risk is often considered," said Burgner, who is also affiliated with Murdoch Childrens Research Institute and Monash Childrens Hospital.
He emphasized that the new study can't say whether poverty causes children to have thicker intima-media.
Nor can it predict if these children will have heart problems or strokes later on.
"However, given the wealth of other work in adults, our findings add to the consensus that social inequality may have broad adverse health consequences from an early age," said Burgner. "For individual families, minimizing the known risks for cardiovascular disease – regular exercise, healthy diet, not smoking, maintaining a healthy weight etc – remain the cornerstone of prevention."
SOURCE: bit.ly/2vqPEi7 Journal of the American Heart Association, online August 9, 2017.