Women who develop gestational diabetes during pregnancy are already known to be at risk of Type 2 diabetes in later years, though recent findings now suggest that the condition also contributes to the likelihood of developing heart disease.
Completed over 20 years, the Kaiser Permanante study was published in the Journal of the American Heart Association and observed 898 women aged 18-30. The women who participated in the study later gave birth to one or more children, and were regularly tested for signs of diabetes both prior to conception and during pregnancy. To do so, researchers used ultrasound technology to measure the thickness of the carotid artery walls to determine whether or not the women showed evidence of atherosclerosis, or thickened walls - an early indicator of heart disease. Follow-up measurements were taken around 12 years after pregnancy, with results showing that women who had developed gestational diabetes generally had thicker carotid artery walls than those who did not.
"Our research shows that just having a history of gestational diabetes elevates a woman's risk of developing early atherosclerosis before she develops type 2 diabetes or metabolic syndrome," said Erica P. Gunderson, PhD, MPH, the lead author of the study and senior research scientist in the Kaiser Permanente Division of Research in Oakland, California. "Pregnancy has been under-recognized as an important time period that can signal a woman's greater risk for future heart disease. This signal is revealed by gestational diabetes."
Gunderson also pointed to the benefits from the findings - including isolating at-risk women earlier to begin preventative steps to ward off heart disease. "It's a shift in thinking about how to identify a subgroup at risk for atherosclerosis early. The concept that reproductive complications unmask future disease risk is a more recent focus. It may inform early prevention efforts."
Like Type 1 and Type 2 diabetes, gestational diabetes is managed via diet, exercise, and in some cases, regulatory hormones such as insulin to keep adverse symptoms at bay. The disease is result of heightened blood sugar levels that occur throughout pregnancy. Unlike conventional types of diabetes, it typically ends after birth, though can manifest as Type 2 diabetes as patients age.
The study was published in the Journal of the American Heart Association.