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Study Investigates Effect of Walking Exercise Regimen on Pregnant Women at Risk of Developing Preeclampsia

PITTSBURGH, August 29, 2001 — A study focusing on whether daily walking can reduce the risk of developing a possibly life-threatening complication of pregnancy called preeclampsia is currently taking place at the Magee-Womens Research Institute (MWRI).

Women who have previously experienced the condition, also known as toxemia and characterized by high blood pressure, swollen ankles and the presence of protein in the urine, have an even greater chance of developing the disorder in subsequent pregnancies.

“This is a complication that can have potentially devastating consequences,” said Thelma E. Patrick, Ph.D., a research assistant professor in the department of obstetrics, gynecology and reproductive sciences at the University of Pittsburgh School of Medicine and the study’s principal investigator. “In fact, it’s one of the leading causes of maternal, fetal and neonatal disability and death.”

Affecting about 7 percent of pregnancies, preeclampsia is more common in the second half of pregnancy. It also can develop during labor and after delivery. Other risk factors include maternal age of less than 25 or more than 35 years and preexisting high blood pressure, diabetes or kidney disease. Untreated, it can develop into the far more serious eclampsia, which can lead to seizures, coma and death.

“Preeclampsia often strikes suddenly,” said James M. Roberts, M.D., MWRI director and a professor and vice chairman of research in the department of obstetrics, gynecology and reproductive sciences at the University of Pittsburgh School of Medicine. “Female relatives of women who have had preeclampsia are as much as three times more likely to develop the condition themselves during pregnancy.” Up to 20 percent of cases are among women of color.

“The risk factors for preeclampsia are looking more and more like those for cardiovascular disease,” said Dr. Patrick, who is also a registered nurse. For this reason, she and her MWRI colleagues think exercise is likely to help reduce the chances that preeclampsia will strike. “Exercise is obviously an important factor in helping to reduce cardiovascular disease.”

In addition, Roberts noted that preeclampsia has been associated with insulin resistance, a metabolic disorder related to Type 2 diabetes. Recent studies have shown that mild exercise can reduce insulin resistance in people with Type 2 diabetes, he said.

Women who enroll in MWRI’s preeclampsia study early in pregnancy will be randomly assigned to walking or non-walking groups. The walking group will be asked to commit to a regimen involving three 10-minute walks a day at least five days a week throughout their pregnancies. All participants will be given advice on nutrition and maintaining a healthy lifestyle. General health will be monitored by periodic blood-pressure checks and blood testing.

Women who are 18 or fewer weeks pregnant and who have previously had preeclampsia are being asked to participate in the study, which is being funded by the National Institute of Nursing Research, a component of the National Institutes of Health.

The goal of the study is to enroll 320 volunteers over the next five years, or about 80 women a year.

For more information on the study, please call Beth Elinoff, research coordinator, at 412-641-3306.

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