New AHA Statement Urges Focus on CV Risk Before Pregnancy

February 23, 2023

Increased public health and research efforts to optimize prepregnancy cardiovascular health are needed, particularly among those in under-represented racial and ethnic groups, according to a new Scientific Statement from the American Heart Association.

"We have released this statement at this time because there is a maternal health crisis in the US with rising maternal morbidity and mortality rates, which are the highest among high income countries," chair of the scientific statement writing group, Sadiya S. Khan, MD, told | Medscape Cardiology.

Cardiovascular disease (CVD) is the leading cause of death during pregnancy and the postpartum period and represents 26.5% of pregnancy-related deaths, the statement reports.

"While there is a lot of emphasis in trying to reduce cardiovascular risk during the period of actual pregnancy, much of that risk has often already developed and the women have been living with it for some time, so interventions during pregnancy may be too late," Khan, assistant professor of medicine and preventive medicine at Northwestern University's Feinberg School of Medicine in Chicago, Illinois, said.

"We wanted to try and emphasize the importance of starting to reduce cardiovascular risk earlier before pregnancy. In terms of improving cardiovascular health, this should have benefits both for the mother and the child," she added.

The statement, "Optimizing Prepregnancy Cardiovascular Health to Improve Outcomes in Pregnant and Postpartum Individuals and Offspring" was published online on February 13 in a "Go Red For Women" spotlight issue of the AHA publication, Circulation.

The statement notes that low levels of prepregnancy cardiovascular health are associated with several pregnancy complications, including hypertensive disorders of pregnancy, preterm birth, small-for-gestational-age birth, and gestational diabetes. Currently, nearly 1 in 5 births are complicated by such an adverse pregnancy outcome, and there is a strong association between these complications and risk for subsequent cardiovascular disease.

Over the past decade, rates of adverse pregnancy outcomes have increased significantly in the US, with a near doubling in rates of hypertensive disorders of pregnancy, and there are persistent disparities, with Black individuals significantly more likely to experience adverse pregnancy outcomes, the statement notes.

Emerging data suggest that these complications have, at least in part, prepregnancy origins. Thus, the prepregnancy period may be a critical window during which interventions have a great potential for benefit in both women and their offspring, it says.

The authors suggest a life-course approach to measure, modify, and monitor prepregnancy cardiovascular health, with all clinicians who interact with pregnancy-capable individuals emphasizing optimization of cardiovascular health beginning early in childhood.

"Leveraging these opportunities to target cardiovascular health has the potential to improve health across the life course and for subsequent generations," they add.

Critical Research Gap

Despite the evidence linking an individual's prepregnancy health to their offspring's health, there are no large trials to test whether improving overall cardiovascular health before pregnancy will reduce pregnancy complications, pregnancy-related cardiovascular death, or cardiovascular risk for offspring. The statement authors suggest that such a trial should be considered.

"This would be a big undertaking, but it could be feasible and could be really impactful," Khan said. "Of course it would be challenging to recruit women who are planning a pregnancy and to follow them to see if they do get pregnant and consider interventions and outcomes, but given the importance of the need, we think this is something that should be invested in."

She pointed out that the main way to improve the cardiovascular health of this cohort would be through behavioral counselling on physical activity and diet. "We need to develop strategies tailored to this age group — young women and those who may already have young children — and often the last thing they are thinking about is themselves and their own health."

She explained that while it is presumed that controlling cardiovascular risk factors will be beneficial, the bigger question is how that can be achieved. "Behavioral interventions are difficult to achieve and often have low adherence, so the focus of the trials should be on strategies on how to deliver behavioral counselling to achieve better cardiovascular health in this population."

Khan stressed that any approaches to improving prepregnancy cardiovascular health must address the current racial disparities that are present. "We must make sure that our policies are successful not just in improving cardiovascular health but to ensure it is done equitably. We must find ways to ensure all individuals can access care."

Circulation. Published online February 13, 2023. Full text

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