When a pregnant woman gives birth to an infant that is small for gestational age, she is at increased risk of heart disease, according to new research published in PLoS One.

Researchers from the University of Texas Medical Branch knew there was a connection between gestational size at birth and risk of heart disease for the mother, but the connection was thought to be associated with poor health or genetic issues. Now researchers believe the same triggers that cause a small for gestational age infant causes or predict the increased risk of heart disease in mom.

More than 40 million women suffer from heart disease each year. It is estimated that one in three women who suffer from heart disease die from the condition. It is also estimated that about half of all women in the world will develop heart disease at some point in life. Researchers believe that infant birth weight may be a free indicator of possible future health problems. If the connection between birth weight and heart disease risk is definitively verified, screening for heart disease and other cardiovascular risk factors could be started earlier and potentially impact longevity and lifespan.

For this study, researchers look at more than 6,000 medical files collected during a national nutrition survey in the United States. Surveys were collected for eight years. Women filling out the survey self-reported birth weights and age. For the purpose of this study, infants born full-term, weighing less than five pounds eight ounces were considered. In addition to birth history, family history of heart disease and other cardiovascular events, as well as conditions suffered by the mother, were collected.

After the questionnaires were evaluated, researchers found that women who gave birth to small for gestational age infants were two times more like to have a heart-related condition later in life. They also found an increased risk for diabetes and high blood pressure. Researchers noted “we were especially surprised that when we adjusted for family medical history and known risk factors… [small for gestational age] remained a powerful independent risk factor.”

Source: Radek Bukowski, et al. University of Texas Medical Branch. 16 March 2012.