If a woman has heart health factors, such as obesity and smoking while pregnant, her child might end up a decade later with poor heart health, according to a new study from Northwestern Medicine and the Ann & Robert H. Lurie Children’s Hospital of Chicago.
The study, published Tuesday in the Journal of the American Medical Association, is the most comprehensive yet to connect multiple heart factors during pregnancy with future health issues in adolescents ages 10 to 14.
Studying more than 2,300 mother-child pairs from six countries, the researchers found that among moms who had more than two heart health factors — like obesity, smoking, high blood pressure or cholesterol — their children were nearly eight times more likely to have poor heart health, monitoring factors in the kids like blood pressure, cholesterol and glucose.
“To me, that’s a pretty striking finding,” said Dr. Amanda Perak, a cardiologist at Lurie Children’s Hospital who co-wrote the study. A better understanding of why children have cardiovascular issues can help avoid issues for them including heart attacks, strokes and premature deaths, she said.
Perak said they wanted to study the connection between a mom’s heart and their children after finding many women have poor heart health during pregnancy. A previous Northwestern study found fewer than 5% of pregnant women had good heart health.
And as a pediatric preventive cardiologist, she often sees children in young adolescence who already have issues like obesity or high cholesterol. Often, those issues only worsen, so she wants to better understand how to prevent them.
“Adults know for themselves that once they’ve developed obesity or high blood pressure, it’s pretty hard to undo that, and unfortunately even in adolescence it’s pretty hard,” she said.
Heart health among pregnant women has been a concern for maternal health experts. The Surgeon General’s plan to improve maternal health noted that heart disease is a leading cause of death during pregnancy. Women of color are most vulnerable; the American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists has noted that Black women are more at risk of dying from cardiovascular diseases than white women. In Illinois, Black women are six times more likely to die from pregnancy-related conditions.
Previous studies had evaluated single health issues like obesity or high blood pressure during pregnancy, but this study evaluated multiple at once, Perak said.
She said further research is needed to know whether this finding is rooted in a genetic factor — something she said is probably a low possibility — or more within socioeconomic factors, such as a mom not having access to healthy food and those factors continuing through parenthood and impacting a child, or an intrauterine factor where a mom’s health during pregnancy impacts the fetus.
Regardless, Perak said, if doctors know some babies might be more at risk, they can better monitor and possibly prevent cardiac issues.
“We know those babies need more attention,” she said.
And it is a good opportunity for further research, she said, for example taking one group of pregnant moms and giving them an intervention targeting their hearts and for the other half offering usual care, then following both sets of moms and babies.
The American Heart Association has recommended hospitals have teams that connect cardiologists and obstetricians, and that women can reduce their risk by entering pregnancy in their best physical shape, when possible, and planning heart-healthy diets and talking to their doctor about exercise.
Signs and symptoms of heart issues can include difficulty breathing, a rapid heart rate or chest pain.
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