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Infant Infections May Increase the Risk of Heart Disease Later in Life

A study led by the Murdoch Children Research Institute (MCRI) found that multiple infections in infancy could put adults at a higher risk of heart disease, obesity, stroke, and type 2 diabetes.

A possible relationship between infant infections and the risk of cardiovascular disease has been discovered

Newborns have weakened immune systems. As a result, they are significantly more vulnerable to certain illnesses than older children and adults. Their new immune systems are just not developed enough to combat the bacteria, viruses, and parasites that cause these infections.

Bacteria and viruses cause the majority of infections in newborn babies. Newborns can acquire an infection before, during, and after birth. Soon after birth, babies’ immune systems begin to mature, quickly decreasing the number of infections a child gets. Still, the brief period of vulnerability to infections could have serious consequences for the future health of the child.

Researchers have uncovered a potential link between childhood infections and cardiovascular disease risk later in life, opening the door to targeted intervention. The study, led by the Murdoch Children’s Research Institute (MCRI) and published in eLife on May 10th, 2022, discovered that elevated inflammation markers and changes in metabolism (the way the body’s cells process food into energy) in infection-prone infants resembled those seen in adults at risk of cardiovascular disease.

According to Dr. Toby Mansell of Murdoch Children’s Research Institute, the results imply that cumulative infections in childhood may predispose adults to a greater risk of heart disease, obesity, stroke, and type 2 diabetes.

“We found the risk of adult-onset cardiovascular disease could be accruing from early life,” he said. We know babies are prone to infections. This causes inflammation, a key cardiometabolic risk factor, but the relationship between infection, inflammation, and metabolic profiles in early childhood had remained underexplored until this study.”

The study involved 555 infants from the Barwon Infant Study, a collaborative project between Barwon Health, Murdoch Children’s, and Deakin University, with infant infections tracked over 12 months.

The research found high rates of infant infections by 12 months of age were associated with elevated inflammation markers and changes to metabolic profiles, which influence how the body processes fats, proteins, and sugars.

Murdoch Children’s Professor David Burgner said infection has been recognized as a potential contributor to cardiovascular disease, one of the leading causes of death in adults globally.

In Australia, cardiovascular disease accounts for a quarter of all deaths, claiming the life of one person every 10 minutes. More than 4 million Australians have cardiovascular disease and someone is hospitalized with the disease every minute.

Professor Burgner said the research offered opportunities for early prevention measures such as identifying the types of infection and the children at highest risk, and how these risks might be offset by simple interventions.

“Targeted action could include promoting breastfeeding, ensuring timely vaccinations, and supporting families so that they can keep children at home if they are unwell with an infection,” he said.

Researchers from The Royal Children’s Hospital, the University of Melbourne, Baker Heart and Diabetes Institute, The Florey Institute of Neuroscience and Mental Health, Deakin University, Radboud University Medical Centre in the Netherlands, the University of Queensland, Barwon Health and Monash University also contributed to the study.

Reference: “Early life infection and proinflammatory, atherogenic metabolomic and lipidomic profiles in infancy: a population-based cohort study” by Toby Mansell, Richard Saffery, Satvika Burugupalli, Anne-Louise Ponsonby, Mimi LK Tang, Martin O’Hely, Siroon Bekkering, Adam Alexander T Smith, Rebecca Rowland, Sarath Ranganathan, Peter D Sly, Peter Vuillermin, Fiona Collier, Peter Meikle, David Burgner and Barwon Infant Study Investigator Group, 10 May 2022, eLife
DOI: 10.7554/eLife.75170

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