Toddlers who were obese or overweight show concerning signs of cardiovascular disease at 11-12 years of age, according to a new study led by the Murdoch Children's Research Institute (Murdoch Children's).

The study, published in Pediatrics, found that Australian children who were obese or overweight very early in life already show evidence by age 11-12 years of stiffer arteries, thickened arterial lining and a high risk of later developing metabolic syndrome. This worsened the longer these young children were overweight or obese.

Murdoch Children's Professor Melissa Wake said the study highlighted the silent effects of obesity in childhood and the need to intervene early.

"Public health efforts are needed in the very early years to prevent problems with obesity and being overweight, to avoid the risk of adolescent and adult cardiovascular disease," she said.

"Our findings are in line with the World Health Organization's calls for urgent collaborative action to address the matter through systems-based approaches and policy implementation. "Such policies include increasing taxes on processed foods high in fat and sugar, safer and improved public transport and walking to school pathways and making community-based sporting activities more affordable and accessible."

Murdoch Children's Dr Kate Lycett said until now little was known about when and how early life BMI impacted heart health in childhood and most studies have previously just looked at standard risk factors such as blood pressure alone.

"Previous studies have tended to rely on a single BMI measurement in childhood and then examined subsequent heart health outcomes in adulthood," she said. "This overlooks the considerable BMI changes as part of normal childhood growth." 

The study involved 1811 children from the Longitudinal Study of Australian Children whose weight and height were measured every two years (age 0-1 to 9-10 years) to determine cardiovascular disease risk scores. At age 11-12, the participants underwent further health checks looking at blood pressure, blood vessel health, cholesterol and glucose levels.

Dr Lycett said the obesity epidemic was a major threat to public health. 

"This public health crisis threatens the modest decline in cardiovascular deaths in developed countries, which has largely been achieved through preventive efforts focused on cardiovascular risk factors," she said.

"Policy changes to reign in this epidemic require strong support from the clinical community if they are to be realised."

Researchers from Deakin University, The Royal Children's Hospital, the University of Melbourne, Turku University Hospital in Finland, University of Turku, Menzies Institute for Medical Research in Hobart, Australian National University, University of South Australia, The University of Sydney, University of Oxford in the UK and Monash University also contributed to the findings. 


Kate Lycett, Markus Juonala, Costan G Magnussen, David Norrish, Fiona K Mensah, Richard Liu, Susan A Clifford, John B Carlin, Tim Olds, Richard Saffery, Jessica A Kerr, Sarath Ranganathan, Louise A Baur, Matthew A Sabin, Michael Cheung, Terence Dwyer, Mengjiao Liu, David Burgner and Melissa Wake.

'Body mass index from early to late childhood and cardiometabolic measurements at 11-12 years,' Pediatrics. DOI: 10.1542/peds.2019-3666

*The content of this communication is the sole responsibility of Murdoch Children's and does not reflect the views of the NHMRC.

Available for interview

  • Dr Kate Lycett 
  • Professor Melissa Wake

Media contact for Murdoch Children's

About Murdoch Children's

The Murdoch Children's Research Institute is the largest child health research institute in Australia committed to making discoveries and developing treatments to improve child and adolescent health in Australia and around the world. They are pioneering new treatments, trialling better vaccines and improving ways of diagnosing and helping sick babies, children and adolescents. It is one of the only research institutes in Australia to offer genetic testing to find answers for families of children with previously undiagnosed conditions. 


The study was supported by the National Health and Medical Research Council of Australia (NHMRC; 1041352, 1109355), The Royal Children's Hospital Foundation (2014-241), Murdoch Children's Research Institute, The University of Melbourne, National Heart Foundation of Australia (NHF; 100660), Financial Markets Foundation for Children (2014-055; 2016-310) and Victorian Deaf Education Institute. KL is supported by NHMRC Early Career Fellowship 1091124 and Honorary NHF Postdoctoral Fellowship 101239. MJ is supported by the Federal Research Grant of Finland to Turku University Hospital, Finnish Cardiovascular Foundation, Juho Vainio Foundation, Sigrid Juselius Foundation, Maud Kuistila Foundation, the Paulo Foundation, and the Murdoch Children's Research Institute (Dame Elisabeth Murdoch Fellowship). CGM is supported by NHF Australia Future Leader Fellowship (100849). The NHRMC supported FM (Career Development Fellowship 1111160), RL (Postgraduate Scholarship 1114567, DB (Senior Research Fellowship 1064629, also NHF Honorary Future Leader Fellowship 100369), and MW (Principal Research Fellowship 1160906). Research at the Murdoch Children's Research Institute is supported by the Victorian Government's Operational Infrastructure Program.