Being Overweight Could Change the Structure of Teenage Hearts, Study Suggests

Scientists believe being overweight as a teenager could change the structure and function of the heart Getty Images

Being overweight as a teenager could change the shape of the heart and how well the organ functions, according to a study.

Following an investigation into whether a higher Body Mass Index (BMI) correlates with poor heart health in young adults, researchers believe being overweight can trigger high blood pressure and thicken the heart muscle. These effects, usually associated with older people, could pave the way for heart disease in adulthood.

The team analyzed data on almost 14,000 healthy 17 to 21 year olds from Bristol, U.K., who are taking part in the Children of the 90s study and have been monitored since they were born.

A high BMI was found to be associated with enlargement of the heart's main chamber, the left ventricle, as well as a higher blood pressure.

Thickening of the vessel walls is widely believed to be the first sign of atherosclerosis. The disease is characterized by the build up of fatty plaques in the arteries which can cause heart disease.

Dr. Kaitlin H. Wade, lead author of the study and research associate at the Medical Research Council Integrative Epidemiology Unit at the University of Bristol Medical School, U.K, told Newsweek: "Whilse we don't want to provoke any unnecessary worry over the lasting damage that higher BMI may have on the heart, our results do support efforts to reduce BMI to within a normal, health range from a young age to prevent the development of later cardiovascular disease."

There is some evidence to suggest the detrimental effects of increased weight on the cardiovascular can system be reversed or slowed in young age and even into adulthood, she said, stressing the important of maintaining a healthy body weight.

The authors of the study acknowledged their study was limited in how widely it can be related to the general population of the U.K. and other countries as most participants in the longitudinal study were white, and members of different ethnic groups have varying risks of heart disease.

Further investigation is needed to confirm whether a high BMI causes heart problems.

Next, the researchers will study whether these findings can be replicated in a cohort in their 70s, and whether there is a correlation between higher BMI and other factors like the diversity of microbes in gut.

Ashleigh Doggett, senior cardiac nurse at the charity the British Heart Foundation told Newsweek: "It is interesting to see that obesity can have an effect on heart health from a young age.

"It can be a common misconception that heart related issues only affect an older demographic, which we know isn't the case. This study highlights the importance of endorsing a healthy lifestyle from a young age - the earlier we reinforce healthier habits, the greater impact it can have."

Last year, researchers at the Cincinnati Children's Hospital Medical Center in Ohio similarly found teenagers can show signs of organ damage from high blood pressure at levels lower than the clinical definition of the condition in young people.

High blood pressure is defined according to percentiles in children, not blood pressure level as it is in adults. The study in 180 teenagers aged between 14 to 17 years old revealed organ damage in young people with "normal" blood pressure in the 80th percentile.