Perinatal Stress and Cardiovascular Disease in Black Women

March 31, 2021

This story was first published by the University of Pittsburgh Department of Psychiatry. To view the original article, click here

A common approach to health disparities research is to take a sample of Black women, and a sample of white women, and compare them, but with the current crisis in maternal health and cardiovascular disease it is already known that these disparities exist. Alison Hipwell, PhD, and Michele Levine, PhD, are co-leading a National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute-funded R01 focused on the association between perinatal stress and cardiovascular disease (CVD) in Black women. 

“Although we know of disparities in maternal health between Black and white women, we don’t know much about how risk for cardiovascular disease differs among Black women," said Dr. Levine. "Our goal is to also study factors related to resilience across the postpartum period.”

Research has shown that it is possible to detect risk for cardiovascular disease during pregnancy, when Black women are already at elevated risk for cardiovascular complications. Data gathered from the 20-year longitudinal Pittsburgh Girls Study (PGS) will enable Drs. Hipwell and Levine to examine individual differences in prenatal stress regulation as a biological pathway through which early and chronic stress exposure across the lifespan impacts postpartum cardiovascular disease risk among Black women.

As a research team, the two investigators’ longtime research interests dovetail well in the current study. Dr. Hipwell’s recent research focuses on transgenerational influences on postpartum psychopathology and early parenting, and Dr. Levine is an expert in women’s health across the perinatal period. 

The study will leverage PGS prenatal health data collected as part of the NIH Environmental influences on Child Health Outcomes (ECHO) consortium. Whereas the PGS-ECHO study focuses on child outcomes, the current R01 provides a unique opportunity to collect data focused on maternal health postpartum. Using a sample of only Black mothers will enable Drs. Hipwell and Levine to investigate a group that is already at high risk for cardiovascular disease and tease apart why some individuals are more or less resilient.

"The definition of stress is nebulous, and means a lot of different things to different people,” said Dr. Hipwell. “One of our goals is to improve understanding of the impact of the trajectory and timing of stress in this group."