By AMERICAN HEART ASSOCIATION NEWS

Women who have babies with a heart defect have a 25 percent greater risk of being hospitalized for cardiovascular issues later in life, according to a new study that says the baby’s condition could be an early warning of heart disease for some mothers.

The research, published Monday in the American Heart Association journal Circulation, included over 1 million young moms who delivered infants between 1989 and 2013 in Quebec, Canada. Researchers categorized women whose infants had critical, noncritical or no heart defects, and followed them up to 25 years past pregnancy.

“As far as we know, this is the first study to look at the correlation of heart defects with heart disease in mothers who didn’t have it to begin with,” said lead study author Dr. Nathalie Auger, associate clinical professor at the University of Montreal’s School of Public Health.

“Having a baby with a heart defect is a sign of future health, and we should be thinking of this as an opportunity to reduce your own risk of heart disease,” Auger said. “Women who have a child with a heart defect should definitely pay attention to cutting smoking, to having a healthy body weight and being physically active.”

About 40,000 babies, which is about 1 percent of births in the U.S., are affected by congenital defects affecting the structure of the heart and the way it works, according to the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Meanwhile, heart disease already affects nearly 48 million women in the United States and is the leading cause of death in women, killing about 414,000 in 2015.

For Anne Joles of Dallas, the study results hit all too close to home. Her first-born son, Gabe, had open-heart surgery at 9 months for a heart defect. He’s 7 years old now and doing well, but heart health is always in the family story.

“I think once you have a baby with CHD, heart health is always on the forefront of your mind,” said Joles, 38. “It never goes away. You know the symptoms, you know the benefit of having great care and good medication. … That worry and concern never go away. Knowing there’s research and just one study that there’s been a link, maybe there’s time for moms to slow down and get to the doctor and put themselves first.”

Auger said more detailed research is needed to determine why there’s a link. A few factors could be at play, she said. Diabetes, obesity and preeclampsia have been tied to both CHD and heart disease; genetics could influence both conditions; and there’s stress and the financial and emotional toll when a family is faced with such a serious diagnosis in their baby.

Stress is something every mother knows, said Joles, who left her career teaching fourth-graders to care for Gabe. She also has a younger son, 3-year-old Mick, who does not have a heart defect.

“In having a child with CHD and one without, I know there’s a different kind of stress,” said Joles, who also has gotten to know many other families affected by heart defects while volunteering with the nonprofit Mended Little Hearts.

“By nature of going to the doctor’s appointments, discussing heart health and being with other families, you know the spectrum of possible outcomes, and it breaks your heart in lots of ways to see other families and what they go through,” she said. “Even when your child is stable, you’re grateful and your situation is resolved, there’s what could have been.”

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