Gestational Diabetes: Risk of Heart Disease Later?

Research shows that pregnant women who develop gestational diabetes may be more at risk of developing heart disease later in life.
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In 2017, a California woman gave birth to a baby weighing in at a whopping 13 pounds, 11 ouces—wait for it—naturally! (All I can say is, "Ouch!") And if you're thinking, Wait, I thought this story was about gestational diabetes, well, hold your horses, ladies. I'm getting there!

When I was pregnant with my son—who ended up weighing in at 7 pounds, 7 ounces—I was told along the way that we needed to watch his growth to make sure he wasn't getting too large. That's because, like nearly 20 percent of pregnant women in the U.S., I developed gestational diabetes—a form of diabetes that only occurs during pregnancy, and that can lead to giving birth to larger babies (which oftentimes requires a C-section). 

Heightened hormone levels during pregnancy weaken the effects of insulin, which normally helps control the amount of glucose in the blood. But during pregnancy, hormone levels can get out of whack, and some women have higher than normal levels of glucose in their blood and their pancreases fail to produce enough insulin to have the cells absorb it all. 

Women who develop gestational diabetes are usually able to control their blood sugar through diet and sometimes prescription medication, without harming their baby's health. I kept mine in check by cutting down on white flour, carbs, and sugars and getting at least 30 minutes of exercise three times a week.

But having gestational diabetes does make women more likely to develop diabetes 5 to 10 years after giving birth (half of all women with gestation diabetes develop type 2 diabetes within 10 years of gestational diabetes), and may also raise the risk of ADHD for their child.

And, according to 2014 research by Kaiser Permanente Northern California in Oakland, pregnant women who develop gestational diabetes may be more at risk of developing heart disease later in life. The finding comes from a 20-year study published in the Journal of the American Heart Association

The study—which tracked 898 women between the ages of 18 and 30 for 20 years—found that women who developed gestational diabetes while pregnant also are at risk for developing atherosclerosis (when the arteries around the heart become clogged by fatty substances). As Medical News Today reports, this could eventually lead to heart attacks and cardiovascular diseases.

Gestational diabetes can also lead to the baby having shoulder dystocia, which is when the baby's shoulder gets stuck in the mother's pelvis during birth. During that time, the mom's not exactly comfortable, but the baby is really in danger as he or she may not be able to breathe. Once born, the baby could have low blood glucose, which can lead to poor feeding, jaundice, irritability, breathing problems, seizure and diabetes later in life. For most women, gestational diabetes goes away once the baby is born and the hormone levels return to normal.

It's unclear why some women develop gestational diabetes and others don't, but you could be at risk if your family has a history of diabetes, you have had an unexplained miscarriage or stillbirth at some point, or are over 25, or were overweight before becoming pregnant. You can also have gestational diabetes with one pregnancy and not the next. However, if you've had gestational diabetes once, you have a 60 percent chance of developing it again, according to the American Diabetes Association.

It's important for every pregnant woman to get a glucose screening at around 20 weeks (it doesn't hurt; it just requires drinking a super-sweet liquid and drawing blood an hour later). And if you are diagnosed with gestational diabetes, it is not the end of the world—though it may seem like it at the time (been there!). As long as you are able to manage it with diet and exercise, or medication in more extreme cases, you are still likely to have a perfectly healthy baby (like me!).

This simple test looks for potential cases of gestational diabetes, to help prevent complications in your pregnancy.

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