THURSDAY, June 2 (HealthDay News) -- A man's heart disease risk after the age of 40 may be linked, at least in part, to his mother's body size and placenta size when he was born, a new study suggests.

"Chronic disease is the product of a mother's lifetime nutrition and the early growth of her child," study lead author Dr. David Barker, a professor of clinical epidemiology at the University of Southampton in the United Kingdom, said in a news release from the European Society of Cardiology. "It is not simply a consequence of poor lifestyles in later life. Rather, it is a result of variations in the normal processes of human development."

The finding is reported online June 1 in the European Heart Journal by Barker, who is also a professor in cardiovascular medicine at Oregon Health and Science University, and colleagues.

Indications of the maternal influence on the heart disease risk of male offspring stem from an analysis involving nearly 7,000 Finnish men who were born in Helsinki between 1934 and 1944.

At that time, birth records included notations on the baby's size, the placental surface size, and other information on the mother's weight, height and age, and previous pregnancies. (The placenta -- a temporary organ that lines the uterus and feeds the baby in the womb -- is expelled at birth.)

The investigators found that male heart disease risk in late adulthood appeared to rise among:

  • Men whose mothers were short, pregnant for the first time and had relatively oval placentas (indicating that the placental development had been disrupted).
  • Men whose mothers were tall and heavy and had relatively small placentas (which might have restricted the infants' growth mid-gestation).
  • Men whose mothers were tall with a lower-than-normal body mass index and whose placentas were heavy relative to birth weight (the mothers' BMIs suggest that their nutrition was poor during pregnancy, Barker explained).

Regardless of which combination was in play, those men with the greatest likelihood for developing heart disease as adults had tended to be relatively thin at birth. This fact, the authors suggested, was an indication that malnourishment was a factor at the time of birth.

"We have been able to show for the first time that a combination of the mother's body size and the shape and size of the placental surface predicts later heart disease," Barker said.

Going forward, the research team intends to study abnormal development of the heart by examining pregnant women's nutritional habits and body characteristics alongside prenatal growth patterns and placenta sizes at birth.

More information

For more on heart disease risk, visit the American Heart Association.