Mothers of babies with heart defects may have long-term heart health risks

A new study says moms should look out for their own heart health, too.

April 3, 2018, 2:03 PM

Nearly one in 100 babies are born with a heart condition -- and a new study says that their mothers may have a higher risk of their own heart problems.

A study of more than 1 million moms found that those raising children with heart problems were more likely to be hospitalized themselves for heart disease -- 25 percent more likely than other mothers of the same age.

If the child’s heart defect was categorized as “critical,” it was even worse for moms, with a 43 percent higher rate of hospitalization. These moms were more than twice as likely to have a heart attack. Additionally, mothers in this “critical” group even had higher risk of requiring a heart transplant for severe heart disease.

What is the connection?

The researchers aren’t sure of the connection yet. It’s possible that undiscovered genetic factors which end up causing problems with the baby’s developing heart may also make the mom’s heart more prone to disease. Additionally, stress chemicals released in response to problems during pregnancy may cause long term effects on mom’s heart.

Could the stress and exhaustion of raising a sick child possibly be a reason?

Parenting a sick child leads to years of added stress which may have a physical impact on the parent. Prior research showed that raising infants with heart conditions, with costly and emotionally draining hospitalizations, is associated with higher rates of anxiety and depression. These factors can increase risk of heart disease. The study didn’t find a higher rate of other commonly associated diseases (diabetes, obesity, or pre-eclampsia) in the women who developed heart disease, but habits that weren’t reported, like smoking, could be more common in this group and contribute to their risk.

Since most mothers tend to prioritize their children’s health over their own, they are more likely to miss the early signs of heart disease when it happens to them.

If you are raising a child with heart problems is there anything you should be doing to take care of your own health?

There is no extra screening or medication necessary, but the findings of this study offer important advice for mothers and their physicians.

Heart disease in women already goes under-detected and undertreated.

Anyone with an added risk for heart disease -- and we can now add these moms to the list -- should try to control things like improving your diet (the American Heart Association will tell you how here), exercise, and stop smoking.

Know the warning signs of heart disease.

If you are only looking for sudden crushing chest pain, the classic and most common description of a heart attack, you need to expand your awareness. Less obvious symptoms are known to turn up more in women: difficulty breathing, nausea, fainting, or new neck, back, or shoulder pain -- sometimes with no chest pain at all. Heart failure (decreased function of the heart that develops over months or years) can show up as fatigue and decreased the ability to exercise, with swelling in the feet or legs.

If you do see signs that something isn’t right -- even, of course, if your children never had a heart issue -- see your doctor, so that you can get back on track to being a great mother.

Dr. Kelly Arps is a resident physician in internal medicine at Johns Hopkins Hospital. She is working with the ABC News Medical Unit.