The programming of cardiovascular disease

K. L. Thornburg

Research output: Contribution to journalReview articlepeer-review

79 Scopus citations


In spite of improving life expectancy over the course of the previous century, the health of the U.S. population is now worsening. Recent increasing rates of type 2 diabetes, obesity and uncontrolled high blood pressure predict a growing incidence of cardiovascular disease and shortened average lifespan. The daily >$1billion current price tag for cardiovascular disease in the United States is expected to double within the next decade or two. Other countries are seeing similar trends. Current popular explanations for these trends are inadequate. Rather, increasingly poor diets in young people and in women during pregnancy are a likely cause of declining health in the U.S. population through a process known as programming. The fetal cardiovascular system is sensitive to poor maternal nutritional conditions during the periconceptional period, in the womb and in early postnatal life. Developmental plasticity accommodates changes in organ systems that lead to endothelial dysfunction, small coronary arteries, stiffer vascular tree, fewer nephrons, fewer cardiomyocytes, coagulopathies and atherogenic blood lipid profiles in fetuses born at the extremes of birthweight. Of equal importance are epigenetic modifications to genes driving important growth regulatory processes. Changes in microRNA, DNA methylation patterns and histone structure have all been implicated in the cardiovascular disease vulnerabilities that cross-generations. Recent experiments offer hope that detrimental epigenetic changes can be prevented or reversed. The large number of studies that provide the foundational concepts for the developmental origins of disease can be traced to the brilliant discoveries of David J.P. Barker.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)366-376
Number of pages11
JournalJournal of Developmental Origins of Health and Disease
Issue number5
StatePublished - May 13 2015
Externally publishedYes


  • epigenetics
  • fetal programming
  • heart disease
  • roots of cardiovascular disease
  • worsening health

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Medicine (miscellaneous)


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