A mother’s heart health during and after pregnancy can impact her son’s long-term cardiovascular health

Children can inherit various physical traits from a mother, but did you know they can acquire her vulnerability to heart disease as well?

According to a study published in the European Journal of Cardiology that followed 2000 families over 46 years, sons of heart-healthy mothers lived about 10 years longer free from cardiovascular disease (CVD) than those whose mothers had poor cardiovascular health (CVH).

Fathers, in contrast, were found to have little impact on their offspring’s health, highlighting the main influence a mother’s CVH has on her children.

Why do mothers have more influence on an offspring’s heart health than fathers?

According to Dr Rohit Khurana, from the Harley Street Heart and Vascular Centre, a mother has more influence on an offspring’s physical wellbeing because her choices during and after pregnancy not only impact the foetus but also pave the way for her child’s future habits.

“A mother’s body mass index (BMI) is a greater indicator of a toddler’s BMI than the father’s. Smoking and drinking alcohol during pregnancy are also well-known risk factors of congenital heart defects, low birth weight, preterm birth and neonatal mortality,” Dr Khurana says.

“A child’s long-term CVH, on the other hand, is affected through parental and environmental influences. If primary caregivers (usually mothers) practise and instill heart healthy habits for themselves and their offspring, their children are likely to continue these behaviours into adulthood and pass on these habits to their children, decreasing CVD within families for generations.”

Why is the positive impact more noticeable in sons than daughters and why do fathers have less influencer on their children’s health?

As noted by the study, CVD incidence rates were higher in sons than daughters because women are less likely to engage in risky behaviour.

For example, about 40% of the world’s male population smokes compared with only 9% of women, and men are almost twice as likely to binge drink as women. Women also generally eat healthier, consuming more fruits and vegetables than men.

As to why fathers have little impact on their children’s health other than passing on genetic conditions, studies show that mothers are usually the dominant influence in the household and more likely to discipline, provide emotional support, and monitor their children’s routines, such as daily diet and physical activity.

What is the big deal about delaying CVD for 10 years if it might happen anyway?

Cardiovascular disease is a major cause of disability and premature death. When patients remain healthy for as long as possible, it is not only CVD that is delayed, but it is also less severe. Furthermore, an increasing number of people in their 20s are getting heart attacks, despite most CVD incidences occurring around ages 65 or older.

“The underlying pathology of CVD is atherosclerosis, a buildup of plaque, fat and cholesterol in the arterial walls, which narrow and block arteries. Though we might not notice a 20% occlusion of an artery, a 40% to 50% blockage causes symptoms such as breathlessness, while further buildup can result in fatal conditions such as heart attacks, strokes, and heart disease,” Dr Khurana says.

“Premature cardiac events, on the other hand, are on the rise due to various factors, particularly childhood type-2 diabetes. Accounting for 30% of total type-2 diabetes cases in Singapore, the prevalence of this condition is a direct result of poor dietary habits, obesity and a sedentary lifestyle among children.”

What can mothers do to ensure a heart-healthy lifestyle for themselves and their children?

Taking care of your CVH during pregnancy is important because the heart works harder when the body’s blood volume increases to support a growing baby. If you’re diabetic, a smoker, or have high blood pressure during pregnancy, each of these things can make it harder for your heart to pump extra blood around your circulatory system, increasing the likelihood of maternal and neonatal mortality and morbidity.

Nevertheless, this does not mean women with CVD should not get pregnant; it just means they should practise good pre-pregnancy heart care including quitting smoking, cutting back on alcohol and managing weight through regular exercise and a diet rich in fruits, vegetables and fibre.

Once mums give birth, they should continue practising these heart-healthy habits at home as a good example helps children make positive choices, which become lifelong habits. As the old adage goes: don’t just talk the talk, you have to walk to the walk!


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