One of the key elements of development is the idea that what we are exposed to as children will affect us as we age. In this post titled “Can Inflammation from Infection Cause Adult-Onset Heart Problems”, we will discuss new research suggesting that exposure to certain medical conditions as infants or children may be linked to development of certain medical conditions as adults.
Premature birth, as well as those complicated by infection, often carry the risk of damage to the brain and lungs. Now, researchers believe that these risk factors can have a profound impact on heart development and the risk of developing heart problems as adults.
Can Inflammation from Infection Cause Adult-Onset Heart Problems?
Researchers at the University of Washington School of Medicine recently published findings of a study connecting preterm birth and adult-onset heart disease. The study, published in the American Journal of Obstetrics & Gynecology, defined genetic networks disrupted by inflammation and infection that could interfere with normal heart development.
Focused on premature labor and delivery, researchers studied heart tissue from pigtail macaque monkeys whose mothers’ uteruses were infected with bacteria like Escherichia coli (E-coli) and group B Streptococcus – two bacterial infections that often contribute to premature birth in humans. Macaque monkeys were chosen for the research because their animal models are considered among the closest to that of human pregnancies.
Researchers studied the fetal heart tissue of the monkeys infected with bacteria and compared it to that of normal samples. Gene expression patterns were studied and compared, and it was determined that bacterial infections interrupted fetal heart development. Incomplete heart development may increase the risk of abnormal heart rhythms and adult-onset heart failure.
Prematurity occurs in around two percent of all births in the United States, and is commonly linked to severe infections. These infections have been shown to cause an inflammatory response in the fetus, which can be seen in certain proteins and tissues. Researchers also noted that changes in gene networks or expression can affect many aspects of healthy heart development, including development of blood vessels, migration of cells, growth of cardiac muscles, and migration of endothelial cells, which line blood vessels and the heart.
One Step Closer to Understanding Risks of Prematurity
There are many areas of prematurity and related risks that researchers are just beginning to understand. The link between infection, inflammation, and risk of adult-onset cardiac problems is one step closer to understanding the long-term risks of prematurity. Researchers continue to suggest that further research is needed to truly understand how research like that discussed in this article could impact healthcare for women in premature labor.
Researchers state that there is a need for a better understanding of how bacteria invades the uterus and exactly what impact bacteria has on premature birth and the health of mother and child. Gaining a better understanding of bacteria and how it impacts mother and child can lead to better options for prevention, intervention, and treatment when infections do occur. For example, could combining antibiotics with anti-inflammatory drugs reduce the risk of damage to fetal heart tissue? Can certain vaccines be developed for use during pregnancy to reduce the risk of bacterial infections like group B Streptococcus?
Common Maternal Infections and Risk Factors
Bacterial infections during pregnancy can occur, and impact the health of you and your child, at any time from implantation to delivery and beyond. The most common bacterial infections experienced during pregnancy are:
- Group B Streptococcus: Group B Streptococcus (GBS) can be transmitted to your child during pregnancy or delivery. GBS can lead to maternal health problems like cystitis, amnionitis, and stillbirth. In babies, GBS can cause sepsis, pneumonia, or meningitis. Some sources also suggest babies contracting GBS during pregnancy or delivery may be susceptible to vision or hearing loss or learning disabilities.
- Urinary Tract Infections: While common, some UTI’s are more dangerous than others. UTI’s affect approximately 10-15 percent of pregnant women, and can contribute to preterm labor and other conditions.
- Listeriosis: Around one-third of all listeriosis cases are among pregnant women, most commonly during the third trimester. Listeriosis can cause flu-like symptoms, and may lead to amnionitis, septic abortion, preterm labor, and even stillbirth. Babies affected by listeriosis may develop more serious bacterial infections requiring hospitalization and antibiotic treatment.
- Syphilis: When maternal syphilis infections occur, there is an almost 100 percent chance that the fetus will also be infected. Syphilis can cause maternal rash, ulcers, discomfort, and preterm labor. In babies, syphilis can cause neonatal disease, latent infection, late abortion, or stillbirth.
- Chlamydia: Chlamydia is the most common sexually transmitted disease (STD) in the U.S. Around 75 percent of all infected women never have symptoms, but that does not mean they should not be tested during pregnancy. In women, Chlamydia can cause cervicitis, PID, acute urethral syndrome, gestational bleeding, and postpartum endometritis. In babies, Chlamydia is most often transmitted during the second stage of labor, and effects may include conjunctivitis, pneumonia, and other pregnancy-related complications.
- Gonorrhea: The second most prevalent STD in the U.S., gonorrhea is asymptomatic in around 50 percent of infected individuals. Nonetheless, testing for gonorrhea during pregnancy is important. In babies, gonorrhea can cause conjunctivitis, arthritis, sepsis, and meningitis.
Because many of these infections do not cause symptoms in pregnant women, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) recommends all pregnant women be tested for certain infections during pregnancy. Depending on the infection, your doctor may recommend testing at different points in pregnancy, during delivery, or even during the postpartum period. Pregnancy weakens immunities and infections can cause a multitude of complications to you and your child.
If you are pregnant and suspect you may have an infection, or have been exposed to bacteria that causes infections, talk to your doctor right away. Prevention and swift treatment options are the best way to reduce the risk of maternal infections causing preterm labor and complications that may affect the health of you and your child.
Learn More about Maternal Infections and Your Rights
If you are pregnant, it is important that you and your healthcare providers discuss infections and how they can affect your pregnancy. Failure to recognize, treat, and monitor maternal infections can result in complications and birth injuries that may escalate into serious medical conditions. To learn more about maternal infections, birth injuries, or your legal rights as a patient, contact Birth Injury Guide by filling out our online form.