A study published today points to yet another possible serious health issue caused by preeclampsia: infant heart defects.
Baby with stethoscope over heart
Credit: Shutterstock

Of all the scary health issues that can crop up during pregnancy, preeclampsia is one of the biggies. Though the condition is rarely fatal, if left untreated, it can lead to a slew of complications, including placental abruption, preterm delivery, low birth weight, seizures, stroke, kidney failure, and cardiovascular issues for moms.

A new study published today in the JAMA, The Journal of the American Medical Association, points to yet another possible serious health issue caused by the condition: infant heart defects. A team of Canadian researchers have discovered a strong link between preeclampsia and "noncritical" heart defects in babies. Moreover, they also found an association between "critical" heart defects and infants whose moms developed the condition before 34 weeks. However, the "absolute risk of congenital heart defects was low," they wrote.

The study involved analysis of more than 1.9 million live births in Quebec hospitals between 1989-2012. Researchers zeroed in on babies born with critical and noncritical congenital heart defects, then compared that info to the number of infants whose moms developed preeclampsia during pregnancy. According to the study, heart defects were significantly more prevalent among babies whose moms developed preeclampsia (16.7 per 1,000 infants) compared to babies whose moms didn't have the condition (8.6 per 1,000 infants).

The findings echo previous research that suggested a link between the condition and cardiovascular issues in moms and babies.

Both preeclampsia and infant heart defects are fairly common. According to figures from the Preeclampsia Foundation, the condition occurs in 5 to 8 percent of all pregnancies, though the exact cause is still unknown. Signs include high blood pressure and high levels of protein in your urine (hence all those samples you gave during your OB check-ups). It hits some time after the 20-week mark, and though there's no way to prevent it, you should seek medical attention quickly to help ensure a healthy, safe delivery. Meanwhile, heart defects are just as common—and worrisome. They affect 8.9 out of every 1,000 births and are a major reason for illness and death. The cause and risk factors are still unknown.

Still, the study's authors stress that more research is needed to confirm their findings. "Prevention of both preeclampsia and heart defects may well depend on the ability to elucidate these pathways more clearly in future research," they wrote. "Until then, clinicians should be alert to the possibility that preeclampsia may increase the risk of heart defects in fetuses, although more research is needed in other settings to confirm our findings before modification of clinical practice."

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Bonnie Gibbs Vengrow is a New York City-based writer and editor who traded in her Blackberry and Metro card for playdates and PB&J sandwiches—and the once-in-a-lifetime chance to watch her feisty, funny son grow up. Follow her on TwitterPinterest, and Google+.