Tiny Baby = Later Heart Trouble for Mom?

Underweight babies born on time may indicate later cardiovascular problems for mom

/ Author:  / Reviewed by: Joseph V. Madia, MD

(RxWiki News) Having a baby classified as small for his or her age might mean more than tiny onesies. It's also an indication that mom should watch out for later developing heart disease.

A new study reveals that women who give birth to babies who are underweight at full term are twice as likely to develop ischemic heart disease as other women.

"Look for ways to reduce cardiovascular risk factors if you deliver a small baby."

The study, led by Dr. Radek Bukowski, professor of obstetrics and gynecology in the Division of Maternal-Fetal Medicine at the University of Texas Medical Branch in Galveston, confirms previous indications in research that giving birth to small-for-their-age newborns is related to increased heart disease risk for the mother.

The researchers studied the data from 6,608 women involved in The National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey between 1999 and 2006. They looked at the women who gave birth to full-term babies regarding as small for their gestational age, defined as infants born at or after 37 weeks but weighing under five pounds, eight ounces.

Researchers collected information about the women's family history and their own history of ischemic heart disease, stroke, high blood pressure, diabetes and cancer. They also included in their analysis how old the women were when they last gave birth and when they were diagnosed with ischemic heart ideas.

Likewise, they considered other heart disease factors, including race/ethnicity, level of education, marital status, income, smoking and alcohol use, dietary fiber consumption, weight, exercise frequency and their triglyceride and cholesterol levels.

They found that women who delivered an small-for-gestational-age baby had about 10 percent risk to develop ischemic heart disease, compared to just under 6 percent for women who did not have a small baby.

Giving birth to an underweight baby was found to be associated with about the same amount of risk for developing ischemic heart disease as having high blood pressure or diabetes, even when adjusting for all the other risk factors.

"We were especially surprised that when we adjusted for family medical history and known risk factors, such as smoking – which significantly increases the risk of heart disease and low birth weight infants – small-for-gestational-age remained a powerful independent risk factor for heart disease in the mothers," said Bukowski.

In the past, researchers thought perhaps that the link between delivering a small baby and developing heart disease later were related only in terms of overall poor health of the mother, or common genetic or environmental factors.

"What we found instead is that pregnancies that produce SGA infants may trigger long-term cardiovascular changes that increase the mothers' risks for heart disease," Bukowski said.

"If future research confirms birth weight as a solid predictor, we will have a low-cost, effective method to improve identification of women at risk and potentially help prevent heart disease decades before women experience trouble," he said.

He said this potential risk factor could even be included in risk assessments much later in life because women usually remember their babies' birth weights.

"If this link is proven, doctors could look out for women who deliver smaller than average babies and provide education and preventative care," he added.

Approximately 10 percent of births are of babies who are small for their age, and heart disease is the leading cause of death among women in the U.S.

Bukowski said it's too early to find solid explanations for the link between the two, but he said one thing to look at are potentially lower levels in the women of factors that encourage growth and repair of blood vessels.

These play a part in placental growth factor, which also stimulates development and repair of blood vessels in the heart. If a woman has low levels of these "angiogenic" factors that damage this development and repair, her heart circulation may suffer and contribute to heart disease later.

Previous research has already found an association between pre-eclampsia and future high blood pressure and heart disease because pre-eclampsia can damage vascular function.

Pre-eclampsia is a gestational high blood pressure condition resulting from a placental disorder and is also associated with giving birth to underweight babies.

The study appeared in the March 14 issue of PLoS One. The research was internally funded at UTMB, and no information regarding potential conflicts of interest of the authors was available.

Reviewed by: 
Review Date: 
March 13, 2012
Last Updated:
March 14, 2012