Surge in pregnancy complications resulting from mothers’ poor health — not their age

WASHINGTON — Recent research suggests that pregnancy complications are more likely the result of a mother’s preexisting health conditions, rather than her age. The study underlines that obesity, diabetes, and high blood pressure, are more influential when it comes to affecting the outcome of a pregnancy.

A startling statistic from the study reveals a more than 50-percent increase in pregnancy disorders over the past decade, with age-related changes accounting for less than two percent of this rise. The authors of the study hope this new data will shift the focus to addressing potential health problems in women planning to have children.

During the study period, the average age of pregnant women increased from 27.9 years in 2011 to 29.1 years in 2019. However, the rise in the average age of pregnant women accounted for only a minor proportion of the increase in adverse pregnancy outcomes during the same period.

Researchers analyzed data from the National Center for Health Statistics Natality Files, comparing rates of preeclampsia, eclampsia (pregnancy-related high blood pressure disorders), premature births, and low birth weights in nearly four million births in 2011 and 2019. The study observed moderate increases in both premature births and low birthweights during this period, as well as a dramatic 52-percent increase in blood pressure-related disorders.

“Although mothers are getting older at the time they deliver, that is not what’s causing these adverse birth outcomes. What’s really driving it is pre-pregnancy health issues like diabetes and hypertension. That’s important to know because these are factors we could potentially modify,” emphasizes Dr. Zachary Hughes, an internal medicine physician at Northwestern Memorial Hospital in Chicago and the study’s lead author, in a media release.

Baby born via c-section
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Birth complications can lead to significant health consequences for both mother and child, including an increased risk of heart disease. Dr. Hughes highlighted the significance of these findings in preventing adverse outcomes and reducing future cardiovascular health risks.

“I hope these findings can lead more toward a culture change of focusing on health before pregnancy. A lot of people don’t establish care with a physician until they get pregnant, but really starting six months or a year before you’re starting to plan a pregnancy, that’s the time to maximize your health as much as possible and minimize the risk of adverse pregnancy outcomes,” Dr. Hughes says.

The researchers found the steepest increase in adverse pregnancy outcomes among those giving birth from their late teens to early thirties. They admit that more research is necessary to determine which specific health issues are driving pregnancy complications in younger individuals.

The study emphasizes the importance of managing health conditions before pregnancy, including gestational diabetes or high blood pressure. Even if these conditions resolve after birth, they should be considered part of the individual’s health history due to their potential to increase the risk of heart disease later in life.

The team presented their findings for the first time at the American College of Cardiology’s Annual Scientific Session.

South West News Service writer James Gamble contributed to this report.

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