a1 MRC Environmental Epidemiology Unit, University of Southampton, Southampton General Hospital, Southampton, SO16 6YD, UK
Low birthweight is now known to be associated with increased rates of coronary heart disease and the related disorders stroke, hypertension and non-insulin dependent diabetes. These associations have been extensively replicated in studies in different countries and are not the result of confounding variables. They extend across the normal range of birthweight and depend on lower birthweights in relation to the duration of gestation rather than the effects of premature birth. The associations are thought to be consequences of ‘programming’, whereby a stimulus or insult at a critical, sensitive period of early life has permanent effects on structure, physiology and metabolism. Programming of the fetus may result from adaptations invoked when the materno-placental nutrient supply fails to match the fetal nutrient demand. Although the influences that impair fetal development and programme adult cardiovascular disease remain to be defined, there are strong pointers to the importance of maternal body composition and dietary balance during pregnancy.