High Blood Pressure of Pregnancy Tied to Developmental Problems in Children

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Pre-eclampsia — the high blood pressure of pregnancy — can be harmful and even fatal to the mother. Now a new study suggests that children exposed to pre-eclampsia may be at increased risk for a number of developmental problems.

Researchers used a Norwegian health database to study 980,560 children, of whom 28,068 were exposed to pre-eclampsia in full-term pregnancies. The study, in JAMA Psychiatry, followed the children for an average of five years, some as long as 14 years.

After adjusting for birth weight, sex, the mother’s age, parental educational level and immigration status, they found that exposure to pre-eclampsia was associated with a 50 percent increase in the relative risk for epilepsy, a 50 percent increased risk for intellectual disability and a 21 percent increased risk for vision or hearing loss.

Pre-eclampsia also increased the risk for cerebral palsy, attention-deficit hyperactivity disorder and autism spectrum disorder.

The senior author, Dr. Allen J. Wilcox, an investigator emeritus at the National Institutes of Health, emphasized that these numbers represent an increase in relative risks, and that the absolute risk of these developmental disorders in full-term babies is very small. So any potential increase in the number of cases would be very small. The study also showed only an association, so could not prove cause and effect.

The reason for the association is unknown, he said, and “women with pre-eclampsia shouldn’t add this to their list of things to worry about. But we were surprised to see in this large database evidence that pre-eclampsia was increasing the risk for a wide spectrum of neurodevelopmental problems.”