By John Salak –
There is always a lot of focus on how and why expectant moms need to stay healthy while carrying their unborn child—and with good reason. Groups and agencies from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) to John Hopkins Medicine, among others, provide a sizeable stream of information and advice on what women should and shouldn’t be doing and eating.
John Hopkins, for example, cites four overriding themes for expectant moms that include focusing on appropriate weight gain, eating a balanced diet, exercising regularly and maintaining an appropriate intake of vitamins and mineral supplements. The group goes into plenty of detail on the appropriate foods and calorie consumption for expectant moms, along with other recommendations.
The CDC offers its own set of dos and don’ts that includes a list of foods, activities and substances to avoid such as smoking, alcohol, marijuana usage, along with how to deal with diabetes, depression, high blood pressure and other issues during pregnancy. Northwestern University, however, has taken a different track by focusing on a largely overlooked but potentially serious health issue that women should address well before becoming pregnant: the need for women to optimize cardiovascular heart health.
The university noted since 2019 more than 50 percent of expectant women between ages 20 and 44 suffered from poor heart health before becoming pregnant. It’s a danger that puts both baby and mother at risk and accounts for more than 25 percent of all pregnancy-related deaths. “As women, we tend to think about the baby’s health once we become pregnant, but what so many women don’t realize is the very first thing they can do to protect their babies and themselves is to get their heart in shape before they even conceive,” advised senior study author Dr. Sadiya Khan, assistant professor at the university’s Feinberg School of Medicine.
Northwestern’s research examined women from across the country, more than half of whom had at least one health risk factor before becoming pregnant, including overweight/obesity, hypertension or diabetes. Excessive weight or obesity were the most common issues causing poor heart health among those being studied.
“Women with favorable heart health before pregnancy are less likely to experience complications of pregnancy and are more likely to deliver a healthy baby,” said the lead study’s author Dr. Natalie Cameron, an internal medicine specialist at Feinberg. “Even more importantly, optimizing heart health before and during pregnancy can prevent the development of heart disease years later. Clinicians can play a key role in both assessing and optimizing heart health prior to pregnancy.”
The data examined by the Northwestern researchers also found that heart health is declining nationwide, but that some regions were faring worse than others. Only 38.1 percent of women in the South had what was considered good heart health, while the Midwest registered a slightly higher level of 38.8, while the West saw 42.2 percent had good heart health compared to 43.6 percent in the Northeast.
“The geographic patterns observed here are, unfortunately, very similar to what we see for heart disease and stroke in both women and men,” Khan said. “They indicate factors, such as social determinants of health, play a critical role in heart health as well as maternal health.”
The issue has near- and long-term considerations. “Pregnancy is often described as a window to future heart health and taking the opportunity to leverage the prenatal period to optimize maternal heart health is critical. But we also need to focus on optimizing cardiovascular health throughout young adulthood because nearly half of pregnancies are unplanned. We need to emphasize heart health across the life span,” Khan added.