A study in the Journal of Clinical Endocrinology & Metabolism of The Endocrine Society says that low birth weight could be associated with a higher incidence of inflammation in adulthood, setting the stage for heart disease and type 2 diabetes.
In a British study that tracked 5,619 children from their births in 1966 through to adulthood, researchers found that children who were smaller and weighed less relative to their peers had higher numbers of white blood cells in adulthood.
White blood cells, the body’s defenders against infection and foreign materials, are associated with inflammation, which is one of the ways the body fights infection or injury. A problem arises, though, if inflammation persists, a condition that is a precursor to diabetes and heart disease, which are both inflammatory conditions.
Previous studies had suggested that low birth-weight babies run higher risks of acquiring chronic diseases in adulthood, but nobody could figure out what the indicators for such risks were. So, even though the study has established that an overabundance of white blood cells is the indicator scientists were looking for, the mystery remains as to why small birth size or weight leads to white blood cell overproduction in later life.
The next avenue of research will be to see if early intervention that helps small or underweight babies quickly achieve normal weight and growth might “turn off” whatever process leads the body to overcompensate in adulthood.