Women who suffer from high blood pressure or preeclampsia during pregnancy may face a greater risk of memory problems and other long-term side effects years later, according to the findings of a new study.
In findings published late last month in the medical journal Neurology, researchers indicate mothers with preeclampsia or high blood pressure while pregnant had lower scores on cognitive function and memory 15 years after the pregnancy.
The study was conducted by Dutch researchers, including data on nearly 600 women who were pregnant at the start of the study. Of those, 481 women had pregnancies with normal blood pressure and 115 women developed high blood pressure problems during pregnancy.
Nearly 70% of those with high blood pressure had gestational hypertension; high blood pressure starting after 20 weeks of pregnancy in women who previously had normal blood pressure. The other 30% had preeclampsia, which occurs when high blood pressure, along with increased protein levels in the urine, develops after 20 weeks of pregnancy.
Preeclampsia can be a life-threatening condition for pregnant women if not treated early, and can lead to seizures and strokes. It is often preceded by high blood pressure, diabetes, and kidney disease. it is also the leading cause of pregnancy-related death worldwide, largely because hospitals are unprepared to treat the condition.
Researchers followed up with women who participated in this latest study for up to 15 years after the pregnancies. They were given tests focusing on thinking and memory which asked women to remember a list of words immediately after hearing them and then after waiting nearly twenty minutes. The tests were administered three times each.
According to the findings, women who develop high blood pressure during pregnancy were more likely to have lower scores on the tests of memory and thinking skills than women who did not develop high blood pressure during pregnancy.
The women who had high blood pressure scored an average of 25 points out of 45 on immediate recall tests. Comparatively, the women who did not have high blood pressure scored an average of 28 points.
Researchers found no differences between the two groups on tests focusing on fine motor skills, verbal fluency, processing speed, and visual-spatial ability.
Scores were adjusted for socioeconomic factors, age, weight, and education. The study did have one significant limitation. No cognitive or memory tests were given to the women before pregnancy to establish a true baseline.
Despite the limitation, those who had high blood pressure during pregnancy may face an increased risk of suffering thinking and memory problems years later.
Other studies have linked preeclampsia to a range of other complications including increased risk of kidney disease later in life, increased likelihood the infant will be born with cerebral palsy if they are also preemie, and increased risk future pregnancies will be preterm births.
While the findings of the new study do not prove a causal connection, researchers determined women with high blood pressure during pregnancy or preeclampsia should be closely monitored by their doctor and consider lifestyle changes and other treatments to help reduce the risk.