The Short of It
Cardiologists at UT Southwestern Medical Center suggest that giving birth to four or more children may negatively change a mom's cardiovascular system. They also found that women with fewer than two kids were at a slightly higher risk for heart problems.
For the study, the doctors studied data on 1,644 women collected in the Dallas Heart Study. They divided women into three categories: Those who had four or more live births, those who had two or three, and those who had one or none.
The most notable finding from the study is that the women who'd had four or more babies had noticeably higher rates of coronary artery calcium (CAC) levels and aortic wall thickness (AWT). Both are early markers of heart disease.
They don't know exactly why. It could be because woman who've had more pregnancies tend to have more visceral fat—that's the kind that collects around the organs. Also, cholesterol and blood sugar rise during pregnancy, and that could be a factor as well.
"During pregnancy, a woman's abdominal size increases, she has higher levels of lipids in her blood and higher blood sugar levels," Dr. Monika Sanghavi, assistant professor of Internal Medicine and lead author of the study, said in a press release. "Each pregnancy increases this exposure."
Unrelated, researchers say, is the finding that women with no kids or one had slightly higher rates of CAC and AWT than those with two or three kids had. They theorize that underlying health problems could contribute to the fact that these women had fewer pregnancies than the other groups.
The findings aren't meant to affect anyone's family planning—just as with another study that found women who had babies later in life were likely to live longer.
Researchers say more studies need to be done, and that this research could help them determine women's risk for heart disease.
"We are learning that there are numerous physiologic changes during pregnancy that have consequences for future heart health," said senior author Dr. Amit Khera, associate professor of Internal Medicine who directs the UT Southwestern Medical Center Preventive Cardiology Program. "This study reminds us of the importance of taking a pregnancy history as part of cardiovascular disease screening."
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