Heart Disease Risk Starts in the Womb: Here''s How

Heart Disease Risk Starts in the Womb: Here's How

by Dr. Kaushik Bharati on Jan 23 2019 5:35 PM
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  • Heart disease risk in the future begins during fetal development in the womb
  • Babies born to mothers with pregnancy complications are at a higher risk of developing heart disease later in life
  • The risk can be significantly reduced by the administration of antioxidants like vitamin C during pregnancy
Heart disease risk could arise much earlier, even before birth, when the baby is still in the womb, reveals new research from the University of Cambridge, UK.
It is well established that heart disease is a very serious problem and is the leading killer worldwide. It is caused by the interaction of an individual’s genes with common risk-factors such as smoking, obesity, and lack of physical activity, which increases the risk of heart disease manifold.

The study, carried out in sheep, has shown that the offspring born to mothers, who had a complicated pregnancy, were more likely to develop heart disease later in life, compared to those born to mothers who had a normal pregnancy. Therefore, the fate of a baby is already decided even before birth!

The research was led by Dr. Dino A. Giussani, MA, PhD, ScD, FRCOG, who is a Professor of Developmental Cardiovascular Physiology and Medicine, and Director of Studies in Medicine at Gonville & Caius College, University of Cambridge, UK.

The research has been published in PLOS Biology, a peer-reviewed open-access journal published by the Public Library of Science (PLOS), San Francisco, California, USA.


Existing Evidence

Existing evidence suggests that the gene–environment interaction could be extremely important for ‘programming’ the future cardiovascular health of a baby while it is still in the womb. Human studies have shown that siblings born to an obese mother are at a higher risk of developing heart disease than siblings born to the same mother after she had weight-reducing bariatric surgery. Human studies such as these have provided crucial evidence that the environmental influences experienced by a baby while it is still developing within the womb, play a critical role in determining future cardiovascular health and likelihood of developing heart disease.


Key Findings

  • Pregnant female sheep were used for the present study
  • Adult offspring born to mothers whose pregnancy was complicated by chronic hypoxia (low oxygen levels), showed higher risk indicators for heart disease, such as hypertension (high blood pressure) and atherosclerosis (hardened blood vessels due to plaque deposition)
  • Chronic hypoxia is the most common cause of pregnancy complications and occurs due to conditions such as preeclampsia, gestational diabetes, and smoking during pregnancy
  • Mothers having a complicated pregnancy, when treated with the antioxidant vitamin C, significantly reduced the risk of developing hypertension and heart disease in the offspring after they reached adulthood


Future Plans

The study provides a proof-of-principle that antioxidants such as vitamin C could be effective in reducing the risk of heart disease. Based on this finding, further studies are planned to look for more effective antioxidants that could be used in clinical settings in the future.

Concluding Remarks

The study not only provides crucial evidence that the risk of future heart disease arises prenatally but also shows how to prevent it.

In this regard, Giussani says: “Our discoveries emphasize that when considering strategies to reduce the overall burden of heart disease, much greater attention to prevention rather than treatment is required. Treatment should start as early as possible during the developmental trajectory, rather than waiting until adulthood when the disease process has become irreversible.” He adds: “The work draws attention to a new way of thinking about heart disease with a much longer-term perspective, focusing on prevention rather than treatment.”

Funding Source

The research was funded by the British Heart Foundation and the Biotechnology and Biological Sciences Research Council (BBSRC), UK.

  1. Intervention Against Hypertension in the Next Generation Programmed by Developmental Hypoxia - (


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