Pregnant women who eat high-cholesterol diet raise risk for future heart problems in children

NAPLES, Italy — Moms-to-be whose diets are heavy in red meat, high-fat dairy products, and processed junk foods could set the unborn child on the path to a heart attack, according to research. High cholesterol in pregnancy raises the risk of cardiovascular disease in offspring by almost 40%. Consuming too many saturated and trans fats found in red meat and processed foods leads to high cholesterol levels.

An analysis of patients identified a connection between heart attacks and cholesterol levels of their mother during pregnancy.

“Cholesterol is not routinely measured during pregnancy in most countries, so there are few studies on its association with the health of offspring,” says study lead author Dr. Francesco Cacciatore of the University of Naples Federico II, in a statement.

Dr. Cacciatore advised pregnant women to stay physically active and cut down on hamburgers, hot dogs, and fries. The findings also open the door to a screening program: At-risk individuals could be prescribed cholesterol-lowering statins or be encouraged to make alterations to their lifestyle.

“If confirmed, this association would indicate high cholesterol in pregnancy should be considered a warning sign and women should be encouraged to exercise and reduce their cholesterol intake. In addition, affected children could be provided dietary and lifestyle guidance aimed at preventing heart disease later in life,” Dr. Cacciatore said.

The Italian team analyzed medical records of 310 hospital patients: 89 admitted for heart attacks and 221 for other reasons, who acted as controls. Data were obtained on the cholesterol levels of each individual’s mother during the first six months of pregnancy.

Cholesterol was found to be directly connected to four separate measurements of heart attack severity, including the number of vessels affected, the organ’s pumping function, and two inflammatory proteins indicating damage.

The researchers calculated high cholesterol in pregnancy increased the risk by 38%. The higher it was, the worse the child’s heart attack decades later, says Dr. Cacciatore.

Results remained after accounting for other influential factors such as age, sex, and body mass index (BMI), obesity, and smoking. High blood pressure, family history of heart disease, diabetes, prior angina, and cholesterol after hospitalization were also taken into account. The average age of the heart attack patients was 47 and most (84%) were men.

A second analysis including all participants found those whose mothers had high cholesterol in pregnancy were also prone to atherosclerosis. This was after adjusting for age, sex, and cardiovascular risk factors, said Dr. Cacciatore. Commonly known as hardening of the arteries, it can lead to a heart attack or stroke by cutting off blood supply to the heart or brain.

“Our observations suggest a mother’s cholesterol level during pregnancy impacts the developmental programming of offspring and heart attack severity in adulthood. However, the study does not establish causality, nor does it allow us to estimate how much maternal cholesterol may contribute to heart attack severity,” says Dr. Cacciatore.

Heart disease is the leading cause of death in the U.S. About half of all U.S. adults have some form of cardiovascular disease. “Prospective studies are needed to better evaluate the magnitude by which maternal cholesterol may influence the development of atherosclerosis in offspring and the combined effect of risk factors throughout life,” adds. Dr. Cacciatore.

The findings are published in the European Journal of Preventive Cardiology.

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