Risk of preeclampsia rises sharply with increased pre-pregnancy body mass index

WASHINGTON, April 20 A Magee-Womens Research Institute study of 1,179 pregnant women found the risk of preeclampsia, a leading cause of premature delivery and maternal and fetal death, rose sharply with even relatively small increases in pre-pregnancy body fat. Most surprising, say the University of Pittsburgh-affiliated researchers, was the fact that the risk was elevated even among women who would not normally be classified as overweight when compared to women with less body fat.

This is one of the first studies to compare the development of preeclampsia to body mass index (BMI - a widely used method of calculating percentage of body fat) as a continuum rather than simply by conventional classification units. It also is the first study to try to determine the mechanisms by which body fat increases preeclampsia risk. Preeclampsia affects about 7 percent of first pregnancies nationwide, and is characterized by high blood pressure and protein in the urine. The condition has negative sometimes lethal consequences for the mother and fetus by causing reduced blood flow to organs. Having had preeclampsia also increases maternal risk of cardiovascular disease in later life.

The study was presented by Lisa Bodnar, Ph.D., M.P.H., R.D., a postdoctoral fellow in the lab of James M. Roberts, M.D., director of the Magee-Womens Research Institute, at Experimental Biology 2004, the annual meeting of the American Society for Nutritional Sciences.

The Pittsburgh research team enrolled women at or before the 16th week of their first pregnancy. Preeclampsia usually begins to appear by the 20th week of pregnancy. By the time all women in the study had delivered, 6 percent of the group had developed preeclampsia. After the researchers adjusted their analysis to take into account differences in age, smoking, race, marital status and education, one factor stood out clearly: the higher a woman's body mass index, the more likely she was to develop preeclampsia.

Contact: Michele Baum
University of Pittsburgh Medical Center

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