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Premature Birth Could Be Early Warning Sign for Mom’s Health

Photograph by Twenty20

About 10 percent of babies born in the U.S. are born before 37 weeks of gestation, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Normally, parents are mostly worried about the baby’s health when they’ve got a preemie, but new research says we should be worrying about the mom’s health too.

The study, published this month in the medical journal Circulation, found that delivering a preterm baby can actually predict a mother's likelihood of developing cardiovascular disease later in life.

Looking at more than 70,000 women who delivered full-term babies as well as those who gave birth earlier than 37 weeks, and at 32 weeks or earlier, doctors found that women who delivered prematurely were more likely to end up with heart disease or other cardiovascular issues. The study adjusted for all kinds of factors that influence heart disease risks, including race, education, socioeconomic class, physical activity, diabetes, high blood pressure before or during pregnancy, smoking habits, and other pre-pregnancy health issues and behaviors.

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Among women who gave birth at 37 weeks or earlier (considered moderately preterm), there was a 42 percent higher risk of stroke or heart attack later in life. For the women who gave birth at 32 weeks or earlier (considered very preterm), that risk more than doubled. And it didn’t matter, researchers found, if the mom had other heart risk factors or what their pre-pregnancy health habits were like.

“They may want to take special care with their hearts and adopt a heart-healthy diet and lifestyle," after having a preterm baby, Lauren J. Tanz, lead author of the study and a doctoral candidate at Harvard's School of Public Health, told the New York Times.

Although preterm birth rates have mostly been on the decline since 2007, due in part to a decline in births to teen and young mothers, recent CDC data shows a slight increase in the national premature birth rate in 2014 and 2015. The CDC says it's too early to know whether the uptick is the start of a new trend or if something in particular caused the number to rise; but they say it's clear that preterm birth among non-white women is definitely more common. In fact, African-American women were about 45 percent more likely to have a premature baby than white women.

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