Pregnancy may influence cardiovascular disease risk in women • Earth.com
Bethany Barone Gibbs is exploring what role adverse pregnancy outcomes, such as preeclampsia and gestational diabetes, play in that disparity
08-18-2022

Pregnancy may influence cardiovascular disease risk in women

Women in their 20s, 30s and 40s tend to develop risk of cardiovascular-disease much faster than men do. West Virginia University epidemiologist Bethany Barone Gibbs is exploring what role adverse pregnancy outcomes, such as preeclampsia and gestational diabetes, play in that disparity and whether physical activity can reduce or eliminate it.

“People always think that men have more cardiovascular disease than women,” said Gibbs. “But what happens is that women typically have lower risk factors for cardiovascular disease before their childbearing years. Then, between their 20s and 40s, they have this accelerated risk development.” 

“The incidence of hypertension and other risk factors increases in women compared to men, so they sort of catch up. We think that might be at least in part because of pregnancy exposures.” 

For the study, more than 3,000 women will wear a special accelerometer that measures how much time they spend lying down, sitting, standing, stepping or cycling. The activity tracker will be worn for 24 hours a day over the course of one week to measure cardiovascular-disease risk factors such as BMI, cholesterol, blood pressure and glucose.

Gibbs and her team will investigate any associations that emerge among the participants’ pregnancy history, cardiovascular health, cardiovascular-disease risk factors and sedentary behavior.

“We’re thinking about patterns. How healthy are the people who sit a lot but also exercise a lot? Are they OK? What about people who don’t exercise but don’t sit very much? Are they OK? We will have the data to be able to look at all of these relationships very carefully.” she said.

Study participants will be chosen from a larger pregnancy study called NuMoM2b, or Nulliparous Pregnancy Outcomes Study Monitoring Mothers-to-Be. The women who enrolled in NuMoM2b were all pregnant for the first time. 

Gibbs and her team will be able to paint a more complete portrait of how sedentary behavior and adverse pregnancy outcomes influence women’s risk of cardiovascular disease. This could help health care providers estimate cardiovascular-disease risk more accurately, and inform women with a history of adverse pregnancy outcomes to use physical activity.

“We’re in the business of trying to understand if therapeutic lifestyle interventions that reduce sitting, increase physical activity or both can help reduce risk in women overall, but specifically in women that have an elevated risk because of their pregnancy history,” said Gibbs.

Sedentary behavior is a risk factor for cardiovascular disease that’s distinct from not getting enough exercise. If you spend 12 of your waking hours sitting at a desk, on a couch or in a car, you can’t “run off” those long, sedentary blocks of time by taking a half-hour jog.

“In people who sit for a long time, there’s this negative cardiovascular cascade that happens, even healthy people. Blood pools in the lower legs, blood pressure increases, and your body doesn’t metabolize blood sugar as well.” 

With this in mind, Gibbs recommends standing for at least 15 minutes each hour, taking a two-minute walk here and there, and doing your best to live a less sedentary lifestyle. 

By Katherine Bucko, Earth.com Staff Writer

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