MONDAY, March 25 (HealthDay News) -- Stress in mothers before
and during pregnancy may boost the risk of congenital heart defects
in their children, more new evidence suggests. But the findings
aren't conclusive, and the effect -- if it exists -- appears to be
Still, "there are several studies now that show an association,"
said Dr. Edward McCabe, senior vice president and medical director
of the March of Dimes, who is familiar with the results of the
large new study. "It suggests there needs to be continued
investigation of this."
McCabe said he's not aware of any other research linking stress
in mothers to a specific kind of birth defect.
Congenital heart defects, among the most common kinds of birth
defect, include conditions such as holes in the heart and other
kinds of problems. Most cases aren't fatal, McCabe said, and
physicians can repair some kinds of problems with surgery. In other
cases, the defects don't need to be fixed.
The new study follows up on previous research linking stress to
this form of birth defect.
The researchers looked at nearly 1.8 million children born in
Denmark from 1978 to 2008 and tried to find out if congenital heart
defects were more common in kids born to a specific group of about
45,000 women. These were women who had lost a parent, sibling,
child or partner between the approximate time of conception and
Women in that group were slightly more likely than the other
women to give birth to a child with a congenital birth defect,
researchers found. Study co-author Dr. Jorn Olsen, professor and
chairman of the department of epidemiology at the School of Public
Health at the University of California, Los Angeles, said the
findings take into account the possibility that congenital heart
defects may run in families and have killed some of the relatives
Why might stress in a mother cause birth defects? Animal studies
have shown that stress during the development of a fetus could
affect heart development, Olsen said.
It's also possible, he said, that stress could lead women to do
things that are risky to their unborn children, such as changing to
a less healthy diet. McCabe said another possibility is that stress
alters the DNA of the child in the womb.
In the big picture, Olsen said, "this and other studies tell us
to take care of pregnant women who experience severe stressful
events shortly before or while they're pregnant."
For his part, McCabe said it's important for pregnant women
under stress to talk to their physicians about quitting smoking,
which they may increase because they're anxious. "We can't modify
whether stress is going to happen in our lives," he said, "but we
can modify certain effects of that stress."
The study appeared online March 25 and in the April print issue
of the journal
Pediatrics. Although it showed an association between
maternal stress and risk of congenital heart defects, it did not
establish a cause-and-effect relationship.
For more about
congenital heart defects, try the U.S. National Library of Medicine.
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