Mayo Clinic researchers find preeclampsia link to brain damage

New research conducted on women by Mayo Clinic and released this week by the Alzheimer’s Association shows an association between preeclampsia during pregnancy and a dementia-related protein later in life.

"So we found that women who have a history of preeclampsia are at risk for cognitive decline later in life," said Mayo Clinic nephrologist Dr. Vesna Garovic.

Dr. Garovic and her colleagues studied a pool of 80 women from the Rochester Epidemiology Project.  The control cohort of 40 women had relatively normal pregnancies, while the study group of an additional 40 women had a history of mild and severe preeclampsia.  Preeclampsia is a severe form of high blood pressure in pregnant women that leads to organ damage.

The results showed that the study group had a significantly higher concentration of extracellular vesicles containing amyloid-beta cells which are tied to the brain disease dementia.

"So these women with preeclampsia demonstrated markers of damage, which on average was about 30 years after their affected pregnancies," said Dr. Garovic.

The research unveiled at the Alzheimer’s Association International Conference in San Diego this week underscores the multiple risks to women with high blood pressure during pregnancy.

"When you have preeclampsia, it’s a condition characterized by elevated blood pressures, typically in a severe range and end in organ injury," said Mayo Clinic Obstetrician, Dr. Yvonne Butler Tobah.  "One of the end organ injuries happens to be your brain."

Dr. Butler Tobah says upwards of 10-15% of pregnant women can experience preeclampsia.  The new research suggests those women could represent a significant risk pool for developing dementia and Alzheimer’s later in life.

"Preeclampsia was thought to be specifically just an illness associated with pregnancy," said Dr. Butler Tobah.  "Dr. Garovic’s teams have done a tremendous amount of work on preeclampsia and how it continues to affect the lives and health of moms well after they deliver."

This new research also has implications for the disparities that are associated with hypertension.  The rates of preeclampsia affect Black women at a much higher rate.  Research from Johns Hopkins University indicates that upwards of 12.4% of Black women are affected by preeclampsia versus 7.1% for White women.

"Minorities are disproportionately affected by illnesses like chronic hypertension and obesity," said Dr. Butler Tobah.  "And now we're learning illnesses during pregnancy will have a direct impact on their future lives, especially as they age."

The implications have Dr. Garovic advocating for a renewed focus on treating hypertension in expecting mothers.

"I think that increasing public awareness of these associations, increasing awareness among physicians that this is what's happening is critically important," said Dr. Garovic.