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Older Motherhood Has Its Risks

Childbirth after 35 may increase health problems for women as they age

MONDAY, April 1, 2002 (HealthDayNews) -- Women who have babies after they turn 35 may set themselves up for some serious health problems after age 50, including an increased risk of heart disease.

Reporting in the current edition of the journal Women's Health Issues, an Ohio State University researcher offers new evidence that having a baby later in life appears to increase a woman's risk of diabetes, hypertension, high cholesterol, and vision and dental problems as she ages.

However, the news isn't all bad.

Women who had children after age 35 also had a slightly reduced risk of stroke, and were less likely to suffer from a loss of bone density as they grew older.

"We're really not certain why we saw this difference in health outcomes, and we don't know if these women would have developed these problems anyway. But compared to women who had all their children before age 35, we saw a definite difference in the health of those who had children after age 35," says study author Angelo A. Alonzo.

What the study suggests, he says, is women shouldn't rely on advances in reproductive technology to postpone child-bearing simply because they don't want to have children when they are young.

"Maybe women don't have as much of a choice as they think they do because of these long-term health consequences," Alonzo says.

Because the study is the first of its kind to look at these factors, the results remain a mystery.

One possible explanation, Alonzo says, is that "it may well be that these women are at risk for heart disease anyway, and being pregnant elevates those risks."

This could be the result of pregnancy-related complications they experience because of being older at the time of childbirth, he adds.

Some experts in maternal-fetal medicine think that explanation makes the most sense.

"My suspicion is that the age effect is confounded by the higher rate of preeclampsia among such older [mothers]," says Dr. Charles Lockwood, chairman of obstetrics and gynecology at New York University Medical Center. Preeclampsia is a form of pregnancy-related high blood pressure that is more common among mothers over age 35.

In addition, pregnancy-related diabetes -- known as gestational diabetes -- is also higher in older mothers, which experts say could also increase health risks similar to what Alonzo's study found.

The study focused on the medical records of 6,559 women who were part of the National Health and Nutrition Examination III -- an extensive public health study conducted from 1988 to 1994 on 10,649 women between the ages of 50 and 90.

Alonzo divided the women into the following categories: Those who gave birth before and after age 35 (1,294 women), and those who gave birth for the first time after age 35 (130 women). The control group of 5,135 women had completed their childbearing by age 35.

Using medical charts and physician notes on the women from age 50 forward, Alonzo then compared data on the group who had completed their childbearing by age 35 to those who give birth to children after age 35 -- regardless of whether they had also had children at a younger age.

He then adjusted for factors that could affect health status, including age, race, family income and health insurance coverage, total number of births, menopausal status and smoking history.

Comparing the health after age 50 of women who had no children after age 35 to those who did, Alonzo found: the older mothers had almost a 40 percent increase in congestive heart failure; a 10 percent increase in heart attack; almost a 30 percent increase in diastolic and systolic blood pressure; almost a 25 percent increase in triglycerides (blood fats); and a 25 percent increase in blood sugar or diabetes. They also had a higher percentage of vision and dental problems.

"What concerns me the most is that all of the factors seem to cluster around cardiovascular disease," Alonzo says.

What To Do

To learn more about the risks of pregnancy-related high blood pressure, visit The Preeclampsia Foundation. For more information on diabetes and pregnancy, check out this fact sheet from the National Institute of Child Health and Human Development.

SOURCES: Angelo A. Alonzo, Ph.D., researcher, department of sociology, Ohio State University, Columbus, Ohio; Charles Lockwood, M.D., chairman, obstetrics and gynecology, New York University School of Medicine, and director, obstetrics and gynecology, Bellevue Medical Center, New York City; January-February 2002 Women's Health Issues
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