Premature delivery raises woman's risk for heart disease later in life

Having a premature baby raises a woman's risk for heart attack or stroke later in life, according to a study published February 2 in Circulation at the start of American Heart Month.

Lauren J. Tanz, MSPH, and colleagues at the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health analyzed data from more than 70,000 participants in the ongoing Nurses' Health Study II at Harvard to examine the association between premature delivery and future cardiovascular disease (CVD). They found that women who delivered a baby before 37 weeks gestation in their first birth had a 40 percent greater risk of heart disease later in life, even after accounting for pre-pregnancy sociodemographic, lifestyle, and CVD risk factors, compared to women with term deliveries.

Women who delivered before 32 weeks gestation had double the risk of CVD compared to women with term deliveries.

The researchers say premature delivery may be an early warning sign of future heart problems, rather than the cause of them. More research is needed to determine the pathways through which premature delivery and CVD are linked.

"This study linking preterm birth and later CVD adds further urgency to groundbreaking research supported by the March of Dimes to prevent and treat prematurity," says Paul E. Jarris, MD, MBA, senior vice president for Maternal Child Health Impact and deputy medical officer. "It suggests that one day we may be able to screen young women at risk for both conditions to improve the health of mothers and babies throughout their lifetimes."

The American Heart Association already considers pre-eclampsia and gestational diabetes to be risk factors for future CVD. "Our results suggest preterm delivery should be added to this list," the study authors said.

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