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Heart defects may be caused by stress during pregnancy, according to study

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Heart defects may be caused by stress during pregnancy, according to study

The latest research reveals that congenital heart defects, some of the most common defects found in newborns, are caused by maternal stress (before and during pregnancy). It seems that maternal stress has consequences on fetal heart development. However, the study results, which were published in the journal Pediatrics, did not show a cause-effect association between maternal stress and congenital heart defects.

Dr. Edward McCabe, senior vice president and medical director of the March of Dimes, said that there are several studies showing an association between heart defects and stress. He said the studies regarding this issue should be continued. Congenital heart defects, some of the most common birth defects in new-borns, include conditions like atrial septal defect, ventricular defect or transposition of vessels. These defects may be surgically resolved after birth if timely discovered and diagnosed by pediatricians. However,  there are situations when these defects do not need surgery or situations when these defects are discovered too late when complications already appeared (pulmonary hypertension or heart failure), and surgery cannot fix them.

Over time there have been incriminated several factors responsible for the occurrence of these congenital heart defects: drugs, alcohol, smoking, radiation, viruses, prematurity. Genetic factors are involved in about 10% of cases of congenital heart defects (Down syndrome, Turner syndrome).

stress during pregnancy


Now researchers conducted a study in which they analyzed 1.8 one million children born in Denmark from 1978 to 2008 to see if congenital heart defects are due to certain factors. Mothers of these children were under stress before or during pregnancy (they lost a close relative at the time of conception or during pregnancy). It was found that women who suffered from stress before or during pregnancy had a slightly higher risk of giving birth to children with congenital heart defects. 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 it is possible that these congenital heart defects run in families and that some members might have died because of those conditions.

Olsen explained that animal studies have shown that maternal stress during pregnancy affects embryonic development. He said that maternal stress may influence diet and this could adversely affect embryonic development. Another explanation could be that stress induces changes in DNA child in the womb. “This and other studies tell us to take care of pregnant women who experience severe stressful events shortly before or while they’re pregnant,” Olsen said.