Can Preeclampsia Cause Autism?

Preeclampsia is a pregnancy-related disorder that affects about 5-8% of pregnant women. It is characterized by high blood pressure and damage to organs, most often the liver and kidneys.

reuben kesherim
Published By Ruben Kesherim
November 17, 2023

Can Preeclampsia Cause Autism?

What is Preeclampsia?

Before we dive into the link between preeclampsia and autism, let's talk about what preeclampsia is. Preeclampsia is a pregnancy-related disorder that usually occurs after 20 weeks of gestation.

It is characterized by high blood pressure and damage to organs, most often the liver and kidneys. Symptoms of preeclampsia include swelling in the hands and face, severe headaches, vision changes, and abdominal pain.

The exact cause of preeclampsia is unknown, but it is believed to be related to problems with the placenta. Risk factors for preeclampsia include having a history of the disorder, being pregnant with multiples, being obese, and having pre-existing high blood pressure or diabetes.

The Link Between Preeclampsia and Autism

Recent studies have suggested that preeclampsia may be associated with an increased risk of autism in offspring.

A study published in JAMA Pediatrics found that children born to mothers with preeclampsia were at a higher risk of autism spectrum disorder (ASD) and developmental delays than children born to mothers without the disorder.

The study analyzed data from over 1.4 million children born in Sweden between 1998 and 2012. Of those children, 22,000 were born to mothers with preeclampsia.

The study found that children born to mothers with preeclampsia were 1.4 times more likely to be diagnosed with ASD and 1.6 times more likely to have developmental delays than children born to mothers without the disorder.

Another study published in JAMA Psychiatry found a similar link between preeclampsia and autism. This study analyzed data from over 1.5 million children born in Denmark between 1997 and 2011. Of those children, 24,000 were born to mothers with preeclampsia.

The study found that children born to mothers with preeclampsia were 1.5 times more likely to be diagnosed with ASD than children born to mothers without the disorder.

Why Might Preeclampsia Increase the Risk of Autism?

The exact reason why preeclampsia may increase the risk of autism is not yet known. However, researchers have proposed several theories. One theory is that preeclampsia may cause inflammation in the mother's body that could affect fetal brain development.

Another theory is that preeclampsia may affect blood flow to the placenta, which could lead to a lack of oxygen and nutrients reaching the fetal brain.

The Possible Impact of Preeclampsia on the Child's Cognitive Development

Apart from the link between preeclampsia and autism, there is also evidence that preeclampsia may have an impact on a child's cognitive development. A study published in Pediatrics found that children born to mothers with preeclampsia had lower cognitive scores at age five than children born to mothers without the disorder.

The study analyzed data from over 3,000 mother-child pairs and found that children born to mothers with preeclampsia had lower scores in areas such as receptive language, working memory, and perceptual reasoning. The researchers noted that these differences were small but statistically significant.

While the exact mechanism behind this association is not yet clear, it is possible that the reduced blood flow to the placenta caused by preeclampsia could affect fetal brain development.

Additionally, some studies suggest that infants exposed to maternal inflammation during pregnancy may be at risk for impaired cognitive development.

While there appears to be a link between preeclampsia and cognitive development, not all children born to mothers with preeclampsia will experience developmental delays or difficulties.

However, if you have a history of preeclampsia or other pregnancy-related complications, it is important to discuss any concerns about your child's development with their healthcare provider. Early intervention can make a significant difference in improving outcomes for children who may be at risk for developmental delays.

The Potential Role of Genetics in the Relationship Between Preeclampsia and Autism

While the exact reason why preeclampsia may increase the risk of autism is not yet known, researchers have proposed several theories. One theory is that genetics may play a role in the relationship between preeclampsia and autism.

A study published in JAMA Pediatrics found that children born to mothers with a family history of preeclampsia were at a higher risk of ASD than children born to mothers without such a history.

The study analyzed data from over 1.4 million children born in Sweden between 1998 and 2012, and found that children born to mothers with both a personal and family history of preeclampsia had the highest risk of ASD.

Another study published in Molecular Psychiatry identified genetic variants associated with both preeclampsia and ASD. The study analyzed genetic data from over 4,000 women with preeclampsia and their offspring, as well as over 6,000 individuals with ASD.

The researchers identified several genetic variants that were associated with both conditions, suggesting a potential shared genetic basis.

While genetics may play a role in the relationship between preeclampsia and autism, environmental factors are also likely involved. Further research is needed to fully understand the complex interplay between genetics, environment, and pregnancy-related complications like preeclampsia.

The Long-term Health Effects of Preeclampsia

While preeclampsia is a pregnancy-related disorder, it can have long-term health effects on both mothers and their children. Women who have had preeclampsia during pregnancy are at an increased risk for developing high blood pressure, heart disease, stroke, and other cardiovascular disorders later in life.

A study published in the Journal of Women's Health found that women who had preeclampsia during their first pregnancy were four times more likely to develop chronic hypertension than women who did not have the disorder.

Additionally, women with a history of preeclampsia were more likely to develop other cardiovascular risk factors such as obesity, diabetes, and high cholesterol.

Children born to mothers with preeclampsia may also be at an increased risk for long-term health problems. A study published in the Journal of Pediatrics found that children born to mothers with preeclampsia had a higher risk of developing asthma than children born to mothers without the disorder.

Another study published in Hypertension found that children born to mothers with preeclampsia had higher blood pressure and thicker artery walls than children born to healthy mothers.

The exact mechanisms behind these associations are not yet fully understood, but it is believed that the effects of preeclampsia on fetal development may play a role.

It is important for both mothers and their healthcare providers to be aware of these potential long-term health risks and take steps to mitigate them through lifestyle changes and regular monitoring.

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How Healthcare Providers Diagnose and Treat Preeclampsia During Pregnancy?

Diagnosis of preeclampsia typically involves monitoring blood pressure, urine protein levels, and other symptoms such as headaches and swelling. Preeclampsia is usually diagnosed after 20 weeks of gestation, although it can occur earlier in some cases.

If a woman is diagnosed with preeclampsia, her healthcare provider will closely monitor her and her developing baby. Treatment may involve medication to lower blood pressure and prevent seizures, bed rest, and close monitoring of the baby's growth and well-being.

In severe cases of preeclampsia, delivery may be necessary to prevent further complications for both the mother and baby. In some cases, induction of labor or a cesarean section may be recommended even if the baby is not yet full-term.

It is important for women who are at risk for preeclampsia to receive regular prenatal care throughout their pregnancy.

This includes monitoring blood pressure, urine protein levels, and other symptoms that may indicate the development of preeclampsia. Early detection and treatment can help prevent serious complications for both mother and baby.

Ways to Prevent or Reduce the Risk of Developing Preeclampsia During Pregnancy

While there is no guaranteed way to prevent preeclampsia, there are several steps that women can take to reduce their risk of developing the disorder. Here are some strategies that may help:

Attend Regular Prenatal Appointments

One of the most important things women can do to reduce their risk of developing preeclampsia is to attend regular prenatal appointments.

These appointments allow healthcare providers to monitor blood pressure, urine protein levels, and other symptoms that may indicate the development of preeclampsia. Early detection and treatment can help prevent serious complications for both mother and baby.

Maintain a Healthy Lifestyle

Maintaining a healthy lifestyle during pregnancy can also help reduce the risk of developing preeclampsia. This includes eating a nutritious diet, getting regular exercise (with your doctor's approval), and avoiding smoking and alcohol.

Manage Pre-Existing Conditions

Women with pre-existing conditions such as high blood pressure or diabetes should work closely with their healthcare provider to manage these conditions during pregnancy. This may involve medication, lifestyle changes, or both.

Take Low-Dose Aspirin

Some studies have suggested that taking low-dose aspirin (81 milligrams) daily during pregnancy may help reduce the risk of developing preeclampsia in women who are at high risk for the disorder. However, this strategy is not appropriate for everyone and should only be undertaken under a healthcare provider's guidance.

It is important for women who are at risk for preeclampsia to discuss prevention strategies with their healthcare provider. Together, they can develop a plan that will help reduce the woman's individual risk factors and promote a healthy pregnancy outcome.

The Importance of Early Intervention and Therapy for Children with ASD

If your child has been diagnosed with autism spectrum disorder (ASD), early intervention and therapy can make a significant difference in improving their long-term outcomes.

Research has shown that children who receive early intervention have better communication skills, socialization skills, and cognitive abilities than those who do not.

Early intervention typically involves a combination of therapies tailored to the individual needs of the child. These may include behavioral therapy, speech therapy, occupational therapy, and physical therapy.

The goal of these therapies is to help children develop important skills such as communication, social interaction, self-care, and motor coordination.

It is important for parents of children with ASD to work closely with their healthcare providers and therapists to develop a comprehensive treatment plan that meets the unique needs of their child.

This may involve regular appointments with therapists, participation in support groups or parent training programs, and ongoing monitoring of the child's progress.

While there is no cure for ASD, early intervention and therapy can help children with the disorder reach their full potential and lead fulfilling lives. By providing support and resources for both the child and their family, healthcare providers can play an important role in promoting positive outcomes for children with ASD.

FAQs

Can preeclampsia cause autism in every child born to a mother with the disorder?

No, not every child born to a mother with preeclampsia will develop autism. While there appears to be an increased risk of ASD in children born to mothers with the disorder, many other factors can also contribute to the development of autism.

Is there anything women can do during pregnancy to reduce their risk of developing preeclampsia?

While there is no guaranteed way to prevent preeclampsia, there are several steps that women can take to reduce their risk of developing the disorder. These include attending regular prenatal appointments, maintaining a healthy lifestyle, managing pre-existing conditions such as high blood pressure or diabetes, and taking low-dose aspirin under a healthcare provider's guidance.

What are some signs and symptoms of preeclampsia that women should watch out for?

Some common signs and symptoms of preeclampsia include high blood pressure, protein in the urine, swelling in the hands and feet, headaches, vision changes (such as blurred vision or sensitivity to light), shortness of breath, and abdominal pain. If you experience any of these symptoms during pregnancy, it is important to contact your healthcare provider right away.

Is it possible for women who have had preeclampsia during one pregnancy to have a healthy pregnancy in the future?

Yes, many women who have had preeclampsia during one pregnancy go on to have healthy pregnancies in the future. However, it is important for these women to receive close monitoring and care throughout their subsequent pregnancies. Women who have had severe cases of preeclampsia may be at higher risk for complications in future pregnancies.

Conclusion

While the link between preeclampsia and autism is not yet fully understood, studies have suggested that there may be an association between the two.

If you are pregnant and have preeclampsia, it is important to work closely with your healthcare provider to manage the disorder and ensure the best possible outcome for you and your baby. If you have a child with ASD and had preeclampsia during pregnancy, it is important to discuss your child's medical history with their healthcare provider.

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