Published: 11/18/2019

By Beth Duff-Brown

Photo credit: Getty Images

Global warming and more days of extreme heat are exacerbating the health risks of pregnancy, particularly among African-American women, according to new Stanford-led research.

The maternal mortality rate among all women in the United States is already the worst of any industrialized nation. And black women are three to four times more likely to die from pregnancy-related problems than white women.

“It is truly a crisis that in America, one of the wealthiest countries in the world, more women are dying from pregnancy or childbirth complications than in any other developed country,” said Maya Rossin-Slater, a core faculty member at Stanford Health Policy and a faculty fellow at the Stanford Institute for Economic Policy Research.

In a new working paper published by the National Bureau of Economic Research, Rossin-Slater and two other health economists underscore how little research is out there about the impact of rising temperatures on the health of mothers and their newborns.

Pregnant women, for example, are not able to regulate body temperature as efficiently as non-pregnant individuals due to the physiological changes they undergo during gestation. Heat exposure can alter blood flow in the placenta, which can weaken the placenta and lead to complications. And high heat can lead to other pregnancy complications, such as hypertension, preeclampsia and prolonged premature rupture of membranes.

“All of these issues can translate into women needing to be hospitalized during pregnancy and experiencing complications during childbirth,” wrote Rossin-Slater, an assistant professor of health research and policy at Stanford Medicine. Her co-authors are Jiyoon Kim, assistant professor of economics at Elon University, and Ajin Lee, an assistant professor of economics at Michigan State University.