Gestational Diabetes May Increase Heart Disease Risk for Pregnant Women

Pregnant Woman in Black TopWomen who develop gestational diabetes during pregnancy may have an increased risk of developing heart disease later in life, suggests a new 20-year study from researchers at the Kaiser Permanente Northern California in Oakland as published in the Journal of the American Heart Association.

Gestational diabetes is high blood sugar (diabetes) that occurs during pregnancy. According to the American Diabetes Association, gestational diabetes affects 18 percent of pregnancies. Untreated or poorly controlled gestational diabetes can lead to macrosomia (high birth weight), increases the risk very low blood glucose levels and breathing problems at birth, and increases the risk of obesity and type 2 diabetes later in life.

Women who develop gestational diabetes during pregnancy also have an increased risk of developing type 2 diabetes. The present study also suggests an associated risk of atherosclerosis, a condition in which the arteries around the heart become clogged by fatty substances. Atherosclerosis can cause heart attacks and other cardiovascular diseases because of the disrupted flow of blood to and from the heart.

States lead study author Erica P. Gunderson, Ph.D., M.S., M.P.H., senior research scientist in the Division of Research at Kaiser Permanente Northern California in Oakland, California:

“Our research shows that just having a history of gestational diabetes elevates a woman’s risk of developing early, sub-clinical atherosclerosis before she develops type 2 diabetes or the metabolic syndrome. Pregnancy has been under-recognized as an important time period that can signal a woman’s greater risk for future heart disease. This signal is revealed by gestational diabetes, a condition of elevated blood sugar during pregnancy.”

For the study, the researchers studied 898 women between the ages of 18 and 30 who later had children and who were assessed for heart disease risk factors. Over a period of 20 years, the researchers tested the women for diabetes and other metabolic conditions and measured the thickness of the walls of the carotid arteries using ultrasound.

Carotid artery thickness helps measure atherosclerosis and predict heart attack and stroke.

Of the total women in the study, 13 percent developed gestational diabetes. The carotid artery walls of these women was 0.023 millimeters thicker on average than in the women who did not develop gestational diabetes during pregnancy.

The researchers also took into account compounding factors such as obesity and high glucose levels before pregnancy. Regardless, gestational diabetes appears to increase the risk of atherosclerosis and subsequently heart disease.

Adds Prof. Gunderson:

“This finding indicates that a history of gestational diabetes may influence development of early atherosclerosis before the onset of diabetes and metabolic diseases that previously have been linked to heart disease. Gestational diabetes may be an early risk factor for heart disease in women. It’s a shift in thinking about how to identify a subgroup at risk for atherosclerosis early. The concept that reproductive complications unmask future disease risk is a more recent focus.”

Another recent study suggests that older women with both diabetes and high estrogen levels have an increased risk of dementia compared to women without the combined conditions.


Gestational diabetes may increase heart disease risks for pregnant women:
Gestational diabetes may raise risk for heart disease in midlife:

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