Health & Fitness

High blood pressure in pregnancy can harm child's mental health


A pregnant woman. FILE PHOTO | NMG

A woman is expected to be in good health throughout pregnancy so as to avert complications that may be detrimental to both herself and her unborn child.

One of the major conditions that often afflict women when they are expectant is hypertension or high blood pressure during pregnancy.

Aside from its known damage to body organs, leading to kidney and liver failure, health experts note that mothers should seek early treatment for the condition as it can also cause mental health problems to the unborn child.

Indeed, a new study published in the Hypertension Journal has found that high blood pressure disorders during pregnancy (especially pre-eclampsia) may lead to adverse mental health conditions in children.

Pre-eclampsia is a common pregnancy complication often characterised by high blood pressure and protein in the urine, as well as swelling in the legs, feet, and hands. It ranges from mild to severe and usually happens late in pregnancy. But it can come earlier.

Aside from pre-eclampsia, other hypertension disorders in pregnancy include gestational hypertension, chronic hypertension and eclampsia.

Gestational hypertension refers to high blood pressure that starts after the20th week of pregnancy but does not cause high amounts of protein in a woman's urine. It usually goes away after delivery.

Chronic hypertension on the other hand, is high blood pressure that starts before a woman gets pregnant or before the twentieth week of pregnancy.

Eclampsia is a severe complication of pre-eclampsia in which high blood pressure during pregnancy results in seizures.

The study, which involved 4,743 women with their offspring, revealed that the hypertension disorders, especially pre-eclampsia, were associated with an increase in the risk of childhood mental disorders, psychological development problems as well as behavioural and emotional challenges.

Specifically, the researchers found that children born of mothers who suffered from pre-eclamsia during pregnancy had a 66 percent higher risk of developing mental disorders. The risk increased two-fold among offspring of women that were diagnosed with a severe form of the condition.

The researchers also noted that the combination of maternal high blood pressure disorders, having diabetes problems and being overweight or obese in pregnancy increases the cumulative incidence of childhood mental disorders from 6.6 percent among offspring of mothers with none of those conditions to 22.2 percent in children exposed to all of the three adverse conditions. Past studies have linked pre-eclampsia to mental health problems like Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD), autism spectrum disorder and schizophrenia.

But this new research is the first to show that pre-eclampsia enhances the risk of all childhood mental health problems, and not just the three conditions mentioned above.

“A novel aspect of our findings was that the predisposing effects of maternal pre-eclampsia extended to any childhood mental disorder in the offspring,” said Dr Marius Lahti-Pulkkinen, a senior author of the study from the University of Helsinki in Finland.

He stated that the findings of the new study emphasise the need for preventive interventions and treatments for maternal high blood pressure (hypertensive) disorders, since such they have the potential to benefit both the well-being of the expectant mother and that of her unborn child.

"The findings also shed important new light on the aetiology (causes) of childhood mental disorders. This information may help in targeting preventive interventions and support for families at risk. It will also aid clinicians in understanding issues and the underlying causes of childhood mental disorders.”

To avert health complications caused by pre-eclampsia during pregnancy, doctors recommend that mothers take care of themselves and their unborn child through regular and early antenatal care (ANC) visits or medical check-ups.

If the condition is detected early, doctors will be in a position to advise on the best way forward to minimise the adverse health risks.

They may give medication to help normalise the blood pressure. Sometimes, induced labour or surgical delivery (C-section) may be necessary to achieve an early and speedy delivery so as to save both the mother and child. Scientists are still researching on ways to prevent pre-eclampsia and so far, no clear strategies have emerged.

Based on past studies, it is thought that having sufficient vitamin D in the body can help avert the condition.

Sometimes, doctors may recommend low-dose aspirin to reduce pre-eclampsia risk among women with a history of chronic high blood pressure, multiple pregnancy (carrying more than one child), kidney disease, autoimmune disease or diabetes.

Other risk factors of the disease include: being a pregnant teenager or woman over 40, getting pregnant for the first time, having babies less than two years or more than 10 years apart, pregnancy with a new partner instead of the father of your previous children, high blood pressure before getting pregnant, having a mother or sister who had preeclampsia and having a history of obesity.