The National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute recently awarded Kara Whitaker, University of Iowa Assistant Professor of Health and Human Physiology, a $3.5 million, 5-year grant to study the role of sedentary behavior, physical activity, and sleep in hypertensive disorders of pregnancy.
As principal investigator of the study, titled “Pregnancy 24/7,” Whitaker said her research will look at 24-hour activity and sleep cycles, to see whether lifestyle behaviors across pregnancy trimesters are associated with adverse pregnancy outcomes — particularly hypertensive disorders.
In collaboration with the University of Pittsburgh, Whitaker discovered in pilot studies that pregnant women who have high levels of sedentary time across each trimester were at a threefold greater risk of hypertensive disorders of pregnancy.
“There’s no sedentary behavior guidelines and, potentially based off of our pilot work, what we’re finding is sedentary behavior may be a really important determinant of health outcomes,” Whitaker said. “So, we’re hoping throughout the study that we’ll get enough evidence to inform guidelines for sedentary behavior in women during pregnancy.”
Recruitment for the 250 women who will participate in the UI’s research begins in January, Whitaker said. The women, in their first trimester of pregnancy, will wear two devices to monitor their sedentary behavior, physical activity, and sleep for one week. And then they repeat this process in their second and third trimesters. The University of Pittsburgh will also recruit 250, for a total of 500 women in the study.
"What could be fascinating is if researchers could develop interventions during pregnancy that prevent the future development of cardiovascular disease," Whitaker said. "Pregnancy is a critical window where, if intervention is effective, cardiovascular disease could be prevented 20 years down the road.
The primary aim of “Pregnancy 24/7” is to study how sleep and patterns of sedentary behavior in pregnant women affect future cardiovascular health. Women who develop gestational hypertension or preeclampsia are at increased risk for future cardiovascular disease. The question becomes whether these women were already on a trajectory toward cardiovascular disease or if their pregnancy set them on it.
“Hypertensive disorders of pregnancy are pretty serious complications that can affect not only the health of the mom but also the health of the baby,” she continued. “I think our main focus is, how can we get pregnant women to be as healthy as possible?”
She’s thrilled to scale up the study, Whitaker said, and it’s especially exciting because she and her co-investigator at the University of Pittsburgh have already done the pilot study. Now, they’re just making everything bigger, with more people and better equipment, Whitaker said, and she feels confident about accomplishing the aims of the study.
“We have very strong pilot data and I’ve been working in this field studying physical activity in pregnancy since graduate school. This grant is the culmination of many years of work, so that’s very exciting.”
The National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute is part of the National Institutes of Health. Its goals are to work with researchers like Whitaker to understand human biology, reduce human disease, develop workforce and resources, and advance translational research.
Kara Whitaker joined the Department of Health and Human Physiology faculty in 2018. She has an adjunct assistant professor appointment in the Department of Epidemiology in the College of Public Health.