Polycystic ovaries ‘may give children enlarged hearts’

Girls born to mothers with polycystic ovary syndrome are more likely to develop a deadly heart enlargement, researchers claim

  • Researchers from Stockholm, Sweden, tested the effect of a hormone on mice
  • They found a form of testosterone increased the risk of cardiac hypertrophy
  • Polycystic ovaries are known to worsen the mother’s heart health
  • But the researchers say the effects may now extend to their female children 

Girls born to mothers with polycystic ovary syndrome may be more likely to have heart problems when they grow up.

A study on mice found that babies exposed to high levels of male hormones – a feature of PCOS – developed oversized hearts.

Women with polycystic ovaries are known to have a higher risk of heart problems themselves, but this study shows that could be passed onto their daughters.

The condition affects around 10 per cent of women of childbearing age and may cause various other unpleasant effects such as weight gain.

Women who have polycystic ovary syndrome may be more likely to have a child with an enlarged heart because the spike in male hormones could contribute to hypertrophic cardiomyopathy, according to scientists (stock image)

Researchers from the Karolinska Institutet in Stockholm tested their theory about the effects of male hormones on pregnant mice in a lab.

They injected the animals with dihydrotestosterone – a form of the male sex hormone also known as DHT.

A key characteristic of PCOS is a spike in male sex hormones, and it’s these which cause many of the condition’s side effects.

Polycystic ovary syndrome (PCOS) is a very common condition that affects how a woman’s ovaries work.

There are no exact figures but as many as one in 10 women of childbearing age are thought to have the condition.

It’s a hormonal disorder which causes the ovaries to become enlarged and to develop numerous small cysts on the outer edges. 

Symptoms of PCOS include: 

  • Irregular periods, in which eggs aren’t released properly or at all by the ovaries, which can affect a woman’s ability to get pregnant
  • Excess androgen – high levels of ‘male hormones’ in the body may cause physical signs such as excess facial or body hair 
  • Weight gain, which is also triggered by the increase in male hormones and is usually worst on the upper body
  • Thinning hair or hair loss
  • Oily skin or acne 

While the exact cause of PCOS isn’t known, it is thought to run in the family and be triggered by hormones. Insulin resistance, which is a precursor to diabetes and caused by a diet high in sugar, is thought to be a big cause.

There’s no cure for PCOS but many of the symptoms can be improved with lifestyle changes such as losing weight and eating a health, balanced diet.  

Medications are also available to treat symptoms such as excessive hair growth, irregular periods and fertility problems.

Source: NHS and Office on Women’s Health

These include weight gain, thinning hair or hair loss, and oily skin or acne.

Women may also have irregular periods or no periods at all, and therefore struggle to get pregnant.

There is ‘considerable evidence’ that excessive amounts of male hormones during pregnancy may be a trigger for a girl to develop polycystic ovaries – which may create a vicious cycle and explain why it’s a genetic condition.

Mice in the study were exposed to DHT throughout their time in the womb and then for their pre-puberty lives by way of a hormonal implant after they were born.

The high level of the hormone led to the development of enlarged hearts, the researchers found, in a condition called cardiac hypertrophy.

Cardiac hypertrophy, in which the heart muscle becomes too large or thick, affects around one in 500 people in the UK.

The condition reduces the organ’s ability to pump blood properly and can cause palpitations, chest pain, dizziness or breathlessness.

It may lead to an irregular heartbeat, heart failure, stroke or sudden cardiac death.

Professor Elisabet Stener-Victorin said: ‘Our study provides novel insight into the mechanisms that may lead to increased risk of developing cardiovascular disease in women with PCOS and their daughters.

‘We revealed that exposure to male hormones during the critical period of fetal life is a stronger factor than maternal obesity in PCOS, which has a long-lasting impact on the cardiovascular profile of female offspring.’

PCOS has already been linked to a higher risk of type 2 diabetes, heart disease, high blood pressure and stroke in the women who suffer from it.

And this new research suggests the impact on the heart go much further and may pass down the generations.

The team’s findings were published in the journal Cardiovascular Research.

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