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Friday, 22 June, 2001, 00:39 GMT 01:39 UK
Heart link to problem pregnancies
foetus
Is future heart health fixed by genes, or in the womb?
Mothers who have low birthweight babies or pregnancy complications are far more likely to suffer from heart problems later in life, say experts.

The study, published in the Lancet medical journal, supports the theory that there may be a genetic link between the two.

The same genes which leave a woman susceptible to heart problems may also help produce these pregnancy problems, say the researchers.

The team, at the University of Glasgow looked at a sample of almost 130,000 births between 1981 and 1985.

They then followed up the health of the mothers for the next two decades.

The 20% of women with the lowest birthweight babies had a much greater risk of turning up in hospital or even dying from heart trouble, even some years later.

Those who had premature babies or the dangerous pregnancy complication pre-eclampsia were also at more risk.

In fact, mothers whose pregnancy had been marred by all three of these problems had more than seven times the risk of those who had normal pregnancies.

In the genes

Many people believe that environmental factors such as the mother's diet must play the biggest role in both heart problems and pregnancy problems, but the Glasgow team says there are a number of reasons why this is less likely.


If these problems are caused by environmental factors, then perhaps we can find some way of preventing them. That is the great challenge

Professor Malcolm Levene, Leeds General Infirmary
For a start, there is no evidence that a poor diet by the mother has much impact on birthweight.

In addition, both premature birth and low birthweights are normally associated with the baby failing to thrive during the first few months of pregnancy - when hardly any calories are needed to support them.

But the latest study does not take smoking into account - which can both affect foetal growth, and lead to heart disease.

The Glasgow study is partly backed by a study of identical twins with differing birthweights which found no discernable relationship between this and cardiovascular health later in life.

The smaller twins did just as well as their weightier brothers and sisters.

Health set in the womb

Many experts still believe the evidence suggests cardiovascular health is set in the womb.

They argue that other studies of identical twins have found that the smaller of the two often had worse heart health - even though their genetic structure is the same.

Professor Malcolm Levene, from Leeds General Infirmary, told BBC News Online: "If these problems are caused by environmental factors, then perhaps we can find some way of preventing them. That is the great challenge.

"It is a controversial area and there are a number of possible explanations.

"The position of most clinicians is that there is some sort of environmental factor "imprinting" itself on the foetus' developing cardiovascular system."

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