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Mother’s Heart Health In Pregnancy Impacts Child’s Heart Health In Adolescence

February 16, 2021

Previous research found 90% of U.S. mothers have suboptimal heart health in pregnancy

  • First study to examine implications of a mother’s heart health during pregnancy for offspring health in the longer term
  • Addressing poor heart health in children might thwart later heart disease, events, premature death
  • Study evaluated multiple maternal risk factors (obesity, hypertension) at once. Prior studies evaluated factors individually

A mother’s heart health while she is pregnant may have a significant impact on her child’s cardiovascular health in early adolescence (ages 10 to 14), according to a new study from Northwestern Medicine and Ann & Robert H. Lurie Children’s Hospital of Chicago.

The study will be published Feb. 16 in the Journal of the American Medical Association (JAMA). It is the first study to examine the implications of a mother’s cardiovascular health during pregnancy for offspring health in the longer term.

The findings are troubling, as they build upon previous Northwestern Medicine and Lurie Children's research that found more than 90% of U.S. mothers have suboptimal cardiovascular health levels during pregnancy.

“Our new findings suggest that the children of this large group of mothers with suboptimal cardiovascular health may be at higher risk for early declines in their own cardiovascular health during childhood,” said lead author Dr. Amanda Perak, assistant professor of pediatrics (cardiology) and preventive medicine (epidemiology) at Lurie Children’s and Northwestern University Feinberg School of Medicine. “If we can address these underlying causes of children’s poor heart health, we can hopefully help them avoid future heart attacks, strokes and premature deaths as they grow up.”

Perak also is a pediatric preventive cardiologist at Lurie Children’s.

Study findings:

Children born to mothers in the poorest category of cardiovascular health (representing 6% of mothers) had almost eight times higher risk for the poorest cardiovascular health category in early adolescence, compared with children born to mothers who had ideal cardiovascular health in pregnancy, the study found.

Children born to mothers with any "intermediate" cardiovascular health metrics in pregnancy — for example, being overweight, but not obese — had over two times higher risk for the poorest cardiovascular health category in early adolescence, according to the study.

Analysis of multiple maternal risk factors at once

Most prior studies of the implications of a mother’s health on her offspring have examined just one maternal risk factor at a time (i.e. obesity or hypertension), Perak said.

“Our study combined multiple factors across a range of levels, and found that the associations of maternal cardiovascular health with offspring cardiovascular health were not driven by any one metric (such as obesity),” Perak said. “Instead, all metrics were related to the offspring's later health.”

How the study worked:

The study used data from the Hyperglycemia and Adverse Pregnancy Outcome Follow-Up Study, which was an observational study of pregnant women and their offspring. The scientists studied more than 2,300 mother-child pairs from six different countries. The pregnancies occurred between 2000 to 2006, and the children were examined at age 10 to 14 years in 2013 to 2016.

Using the American Heart Association’s definition for cardiovascular health, the scientists categorized cardiovascular health for mothers based on their levels of body mass index (an indicator of weight versus height), blood pressure, cholesterol, glucose and smoking status at 28 weeks' gestation. The scientists categorized cardiovascular health for offspring based on their levels of body mass index, blood pressure, cholesterol and glucose at age 10 to14 years old.

What’s next?

“The children in this study are soon going to be adults, and as a next step, we'd like to measure cardiovascular health and signs of early cardiovascular disease as they enter adulthood,” Perak said.

Additionally, she plans to investigate some of the underlying reasons why poorer maternal cardiovascular health in pregnancy might lead to poorer offspring cardiovascular health. For example, an adverse environment in the woman’s uterus may lead to differences in which the offspring's genes are turned "on" or "off" at different times, which could be a reason for health differences, Perak said.  

Funding for the study was provided by the National Institutes of Health (NIH) (grant K23HL145101); Pediatric Physician-Scientist Research Award; the Eleanor Wood-Prince Grant; the Dixon Translational Research Award; the American Heart Association (grants 17SFRN33660752, 17SFRN33660752, 17SFRN33700101, 17SFRN33700155); the National Center for Advancing Translational Sciences of the NIH (grant UL1TR001422). HAPO and HAPO FUS were funded by NICHD (grants R01HD34242, R01HD34243), National Institute of Diabetes and Digestive and Kidney Diseases (NIDDK) (grants R01DK095963, R01DK117491) and The Eunice Kennedy Shriver National Institute of Child Health and Human Development /NIDDK (grant 1U01DK094830).

Research at Ann & Robert H. Lurie Children’s Hospital of Chicago is conducted through the Stanley Manne Children’s Research Institute. The Manne Research Institute is focused on improving child health, transforming pediatric medicine and ensuring healthier futures through the relentless pursuit of knowledge. Lurie Children’s is ranked as one of the nation’s top children’s hospitals by U.S. News & World Report. It is the pediatric training ground for Northwestern University Feinberg School of Medicine. Last year, the hospital served more than 220,000 children from 48 states and 49 countries.