Cardiovascular risks and pregnancy complications can raise risk of hypertension years after childbirth

March 1, 2021

A new study of first-time pregnant women found risk factors for heart disease, such as obesity and elevated blood sugar, can put expectant moms at higher risk for pregnancy complications and gestational diabetes and also lead to increased chances of high blood pressure, or hypertension, two to seven years after giving birth, according to a news release from the National Institutes of Health (NIH).

The findings appeared in the Journal of the American Heart Association.

Researchers created the nuMoM2b Heart Health Study, supported by the NIH, to examine factors that influence pregnancy outcomes and support the cardiovascular health of new mothers. In this sub-study, researchers followed 4,471 women who had their first child at one of eight U.S. medical centers between 2011 and 2014. About one in two women were overweight or obese at the start of their pregnancy. The researchers monitored the women from the early stages of their pregnancies and stayed in touch, through self-reporting surveys, phone calls, and clinical visits, for up to seven years after the women gave birth.

The researchers found that roughly 25 percent of the study participants, 1,102 women, had a pregnancy complication or developed gestational diabetes. Women who experienced a pregnancy complication were more likely to have developed markers for heart disease before or during their first trimester, compared to those who did not experience complications. For example, women with pregnancy complications were more likely to have higher levels of blood sugar, blood pressure, and inflammation, while women who did not develop complications had normal or lower levels.

Women in the study who had a pregnancy complication or who developed gestational diabetes were also 1.6 times as likely to develop hypertension within seven years. Their risk for stage 2 hypertension, the level at which treatment is often prescribed, doubled.

The researchers suggest that screening patients for heart disease, which the American Heart Association and the American College of Cardiology recommend doing every four to six years for adults ages 20-39, could start even earlier for pregnant women or could be integrated into prenatal or obstetric care. In the study, women who exercised three hours each week had a lower risk for later hypertension.

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