Family Genes Linked to Preeclampsia

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Preeclampsia, a potentially life-threatening form of high blood pressure during pregnancy, can run in families, a new study shows.

If untreated, preeclampsia can damage the mother’s liver or kidneys, deprive the fetus of oxygen, and cause maternal seizures (eclampsia).

Sons and daughters born from preeclampsia pregnancies may carry genes related to the condition, according to the study, which appears in BMJ Online First.

The researchers who worked on the study included Rolv Skjaerven of the Medical Birth Registry of Norway, a branch of the Norwegian Institute of Public Health.

What Is Preeclampsia?

Like Mother, Like Child

Preeclampsia happens during pregnancy, so men don’t experience it. But that doesn’t let them totally off the hook.

Men born from preeclampsia pregnancies are 50 percent more likely to father a preeclampsia pregnancy than other men, the study shows.

That’s a “moderately increased risk,” write the researchers. They note that the link appears to be stronger for women.

Women born from preeclampsia pregnancies are more than twice as likely to have preeclampsia pregnancies, the researchers note.

The data came from Norway’s medical birth registry, which includes every baby born in Norway since 1967. That’s more than 2 million babies.

Some Women More at Risk of Preeclampsia

Sisters, Brothers

Preeclampsia is most common in first-time pregnancies. Women who have preeclampsia with their first pregnancy won’t necessarily have preeclampsia with later pregnancies.

The researchers took that into account. It didn’t change their findings.

Then, the scientists took another look at the family tree. They wanted to see if children born to women who had had preeclampsia in a previous pregnancy were likely to have preeclampsia.

The answer was yes for girls and no for boys. Birth order didn’t change that.

Sisters of babies born from preeclampsia pregnancies were twice as likely to have preeclampsia as women with no family history of the condition.

Brothers of preeclampsia babies were as likely to father preeclampsia pregnancies as men with no family preeclampsia history, the study shows.

Urine Test May Predict Preeclampsia Risk

Gene Link?

The researchers didn’t hunt for genes that cause preeclampsia. But the generational patterns prompted them to suggest a genetic link to the condition.

No one knows what causes preeclampsia.

Risk factors can include chronic high blood pressure, chronic kidney disease, personal or family history of preeclampsia, diabetes, obesity, first pregnancy (or first pregnancy with a new partner), pregnancy with more than one baby, and age (younger than 21 or older than 35).

Another preeclampsia risk factor is molar pregnancy -- a mass of abnormal cell growth inside the uterus that triggers pregnancy symptoms.

Babies May Start Crying While in the Womb

Prenatal Care Counts

Preeclampsia is one reason why prenatal care is so important. Doctors can help find and treat the problem.

Besides high blood pressure, preeclampsia symptoms can include persistent headache, vision problems, pain in the upper right abdomen, protein in urine, and swollen hands and face that don’t go away during the day (if accompanied by other signs of preeclampsia).

Preeclampsia typically develops after the 20th week of pregnancy. Treatment may call for bed rest in a hospital, medication, and close monitoring of the mother and fetus.

Visit WebMD's Pregnancy Center

By Miranda Hitti, reviewed by Brunilda Nazario, MD

SOURCES: Skjaerven, R. BMJ Online First, Sept. 16, 2005, online edition. News release, BMJ. WebMD Medical Reference from Healthwise: “Preeclampsia and High Blood Pressure During Pregnancy: Preeclampsia.” WebMD Medical Reference from Healthwise: “Preeclampsia and High Blood Pressure During Pregnancy: What Increases Your Risk.” WebMD Medical Reference from Healthwise: “Preeclampsia and High Blood Pressure During Pregnancy: Molar Pregnancy.”