Evidence has accumulated that low birthweight is associated with several risk factors for cardiovascular disease. However, it is not known whether or not these associations are due to a programmed response to intrauterine malnutrition or genetic factors influencing both birthweight and cardiovascular risk factors. Twin studies offer a unique opportunity to distinguish between intrauterine and genetic origins of the association between birthweight and cardiovascular risk. In our twin cohort, low birthweight was associated with insulin resistance, lower HDL and shorter height within both dizygotic and monozygotic twin pairs, suggesting that these associations are, at least in part, independent of genetic factors. In contrast, low birthweight was associated with blood pressure, total and LDL cholesterol, fibrinogen and sympathetic activation within dizygotic twin pairs, but not within monozygotic twin pairs. These differences between dizygotic and monozygotic twins suggest that these associations are, at least in part, due to genetic factors. Therefore, both intrauterine environmental and genetic factors appear to play a role in the association between birthweight and cardiovascular risk factors. In the future, strategies may be developed targeted at improving or preventing impaired intrauterine growth. However, the effects of interventions that comprise changes in environment within the normal range may be limited due to the possible important role of genetic factors.
- Netherlands Twin Register (NTR)