DALLAS — Mothers-to-be can reduce their child’s risk of heart disease before they’re even born, according to a new study. Eating healthily and getting plenty of exercise protects future offspring against the world’s number one killer, a team working with the American Heart Association says.
Women planning to start a family should stick to simple rules, dubbed Life’s Essential 8. These habits also include not smoking, maintaining normal weight, blood pressure, cholesterol, and glucose levels, and getting plenty of sleep. Using the guidelines, researchers found only one in five children and adults in the U.S. have optimal cardiovascular health.
“The biological processes that contribute to adverse pregnancy outcomes begin before a person is pregnant,” says Sadiya Khan, M.D., M.Sc., FAHA, chair of the scientific statement writing group and an assistant professor of medicine and preventive medicine at Northwestern University’s Feinberg School of Medicine, in a media release.
“Therefore, it is necessary to focus on optimizing cardiovascular health before pregnancy. The data indicate cardiovascular health has an intergenerational relationship. The time prior to pregnancy is a critical life stage that affects the health of the person who becomes pregnant, and the children born to them.”
Khan’s statement summarizes the “intergenerational impact of pre-pregnancy.” A woman’s heart health — including the physical, environmental, and cognitive experiences in childhood and young adulthood — has a connection to that of her children born later on.
The findings open the door to public health interventions that stop premature births, gestational diabetes, high blood pressure, pre-eclampsia, or infants too small for their gestational age. Pregnancy complications also have a link to higher risk for cardiovascular disease among the offspring, according to the study in the journal Circulation.
Premature birth sends heart disease risk skyrocketing
Being born preterm raises the risk of heart disease by the age of 43 by more than 50 percent. Having Type 2 diabetes, the form linked to unhealthy lifestyles, before becoming pregnant is associated with a 39-percent higher risk of cardiovascular disease among offspring at the age of 40.
“If a research trial focused on cardiovascular health before pregnancy successfully reduced pregnancy complications and improved the mother’s and child’s cardiovascular health, it could be practice-changing,” Khan says.
Researchers add that studies to address the research gap need to include people from underrepresented racial and ethnic backgrounds who face disproportionately higher rates of heart disease. They should also investigate lifestyle changes like heart-healthy diet and physical activity in pregnant individuals, as well as strategies with medications known to be safe. Psychological health, stress, and resilience need consideration, too.
“There is substantial opportunity to improve health across the life course and for multiple generations by improving pre-pregnancy cardiovascular health. However, the responsibility is one that should be embraced by all of us, not placed solely on individual women,” Khan concludes.
“The pre-pregnancy period offers a unique window of opportunity to equitably address the increased incidence of adverse pregnancy outcomes, and to interrupt and improve the intergenerational relationship of poor cardiovascular health by focusing on individual-, community- and policy-level solutions.”
Globally, heart diseases claim around 18 million lives annually.
South West News Service writer Mark Waghorn contributed to this report.