Although childhood malnutrition predominantly affects children in developing nations, children in poverty-stricken areas of the United States also suffer from the perils of hunger. The U.S. Department of Agriculture estimated that 8.3 million children were living in food-insecure households in 2012. A recent study published in the American Heart Association journal Hypertension has revealed that adults who survived malnutrition as a child are at an increased risk for high blood pressure and poor heart development.

"If nutritional needs are not met during this time, when structures of the body are highly susceptible to potentially irreversible change, it could have long-term consequences on heart anatomy and blood flow later in life," Dr. Terrence Forrester, the study’s lead author from the UWI Solutions for Developing Countries at the University of the West Indies, said in a statement.

Forrester and his colleagues compared the overall health of 116 adults who were exposed to malnutrition while growing up in Jamaica to 45 men and women who were fed adequately as children. Participants who were in their 20s and 30s at the time of the study underwent echocardiograms or imaging tests that evaluated heart function. Researchers also measured each participant’s height, weight, and blood pressure levels.

Adults who were exposed to malnutrition during their childhood were more likely to record a higher diastolic blood pressure reading, the bottom number in a blood pressure measurement, compared to adults who were adequately fed as children. Participants exposed to childhood malnutrition were also more likely to record a higher peripheral resistance, a measure of the resistance to blood flow in smaller vessels, and suffer from a heart that pumps blood less efficiently.

"We are concerned that millions of people globally who suffer malnutrition before or after birth are at increased risk of hypertension in later life," Forrester added. "Such an investment in nutrition and general health will have huge public health dividends, including these longer-term risks of chronic heart and metabolic diseases that cost so much in human lives.”

According to the American Heart Association, 76.4 million adults in the U.S. have been diagnosed with high blood pressure (hypertension). People adhering to a diet high in salt, calories, fat, and sugars and low in essential nutrients found in fruits, vegetables, whole grains, low-fat dairy products, beans, and lean meats are at an increased risk for high blood pressure. Forrester said that addressing malnutrition concerns around the world could effectively help prevent and manage high blood pressure.

Source: Tennant I, Barnett A, Forrester T. Hypertension. 2014.