Mom's Grief During Pregnancy Could Pass Heart Trouble to Her Child

By   |  February 28, 2024

By Lori Saxena HealthDay Reporter  |  Copyright © 2024 HealthDay. All rights reserved.

WEDNESDAY, Feb. 28, 2024 (HealthDay News) -- Babies born to mothers who experience profound grief during pregnancy may be vulnerable to heart failure much later in life, new research suggests.

"If future studies support our findings, the implementation of early screening for risk factors such as obesity, hypertension and diabetes in children born to mothers who experienced bereavement, as well as the adoption of preventive measures, could significantly contribute to reducing the burden of heart failure and other cardiovascular diseases,” said lead researcher Fen Yang, a PhD student at the Karolinska Institute in Stockholm.

Turning to data from over 6.7 million births in Denmark and Sweden between 1973 and 2016, the research team focused on maternal grief as a form of prenatal stress.

Of the participants, more than 167,000 had experienced prenatal stress due to bereavement in the year before or during pregnancy.

The team then analyzed information on the maternal loss of close family members and subsequent heart failure diagnoses in the children by middle age.

What did they discover?

During the follow-up period (the median period was just over 24 years), more than 4,800 offspring were diagnosed with heart failure.

Only severe forms of maternal loss, particularly the death of a partner or an older child, were associated with a higher risk of heart failure later in life for the children. The loss of other close family members showed a link when the death was unnatural.

The findings were published Feb. 21 in the journal JACC: Heart Failure.

The researchers suggested that maternal stress during pregnancy might create an unfavorable environment in the womb, potentially leading to adverse pregnancy outcomes and influencing the heart health of the child later in life. Other factors that unfold after childbirth, such as lifestyle choices and socioeconomic status, may also influence the heart health of the children.

Still, Dr. Maya Guglin, chair of the American College of Cardiology's Heart Failure and Transplantation Council, was not convinced by the findings.

“The study includes children who have heart failure at the age of 10, which is known as congenital heart disease and has already been linked to maternal grief. The researchers did not exclude these children from the study, which would make sense to me. If they did, I will be convinced, but they did not,” Guglin said.

Still, Yang emphasized the importance of considering severe maternal bereavement as a potential risk factor for future heart failure.

To minimize the long-term impact of prenatal stress on a child's health, the researchers suggested that pregnant women seek support and use coping strategies for their grief. However, they also noted that expecting mothers don’t need to panic about the likelihood of their children developing heart failure, given that heart failure remains rare in young people.

With heart failure, the heart cannot pump enough oxygen-rich blood to the body's organs. Heart failure cannot be cured, but its symptoms can be treated to improve quality and length of life.

The study did have other limitations, including the inability to identify milder forms of heart failure and potential confounding factors like genetics and lifestyle choices.

“The loss of a loved one can’t be prevented, so there is little practical intervention that can be done. Some proportion of pregnant women are going to experience this traumatic experience,” Guglin noted.

Yang also stressed that more research is needed to explore other stressors that could influence heart failure risk.

“Future studies would be needed to determine whether less severe, but more common, sources of stress than bereavement, such as work and marital stress, financial difficulties, unemployment, other adverse life events or daily hassles, could influence the risk of heart failure, not only in young age, but also in older ages than what we could study,” Yang said.

More information

The American Heart Association has more on heart failure.

SOURCES: Fen Yang, PhD student, Karolinska Institute, Stockholm; Maya Guglin, MD, chair, ACC Heart Failure and Transplantation Council, JACC: Heart Failure, Feb. 21, 2024