$20 million scientific research initiative focuses on differences in heart health between mother and child

Poor heart health, particularly in women of color, puts both expectant mothers and their infants at risk, with heart disease causing more than one in four pregnancy-related deaths (26.5%) in the US, according to the 2022 Heart Disease and Stroke Statistics Update, according to the American Heart Association. To address this growing concern, the American Heart Association has announced a $20 million scientific research initiative created to establish the Health Equity Research Network (HERN) on Disparities in Maternal-Infant Health Outcomes finance. The initiative seeks to better understand the link between pregnancy complications and cardiovascular health in women and their babies. The Association will select multiple research teams to conduct specific projects focused on significantly improving the understanding of the factors underlying the disproportionate impact of maternal complications and death among Black women, Native American women and people in rural areas.

The Health Equity Research Network on Disparities in Maternal and Child Health Outcomes is part of the multi-pronged approach of the American Heart Association’s unprecedented pledge to proactively address the social determinants of health while working to improve health equity for all communities. We are committing more than $230 million over the next four years to support targeted initiatives and programs addressing health equity while we make additional efforts to drive systemic public health changes that affect improving the social determinants of health and addressing issues of health equity and structural racism.”


Donald M. Lloyd-Jones, MD, Sc.M., FAHA, President of the American Heart Association, Chair of the Department of Preventive Medicine, Eileen M. Foell Professor of Cardiac Research and Professor of Preventive Medicine, Medicine and Pediatrics at Northwestern University Feinberg School of Medicine in Chicago

According to the US Centers for Disease and Prevention (CDC), the US has the highest maternal mortality rate among developed countries (Hoyert, NCHS Health E-Stats, 2021), and the US is the only developed country where rates are worsening. Diseases of the heart and vascular system are the leading causes of pregnancy-related deaths in US women. These differences remain independent of socioeconomic variables.

“Structural racism in the health care system impacts how women of color, particularly non-Hispanic black women, are treated across the spectrum of prenatal care, pregnancy and post-natal care,” said Michelle A. Albert, MD, MPH, FAHA, honorary president-elect of the American Heart Association, Professor of Medicine, Director of the Center for the Study of AdversiTy and CardiovasculaR DiseasE (NURTURE Center) and Associate Dean of Admissions at the University of California, San Francisco. “Chronic stress and related experiences, including racism, are associated with cardiovascular disease.”

“Social determinants of health contribute to approximately 80% of cardiovascular risk,” said Albert, who has received previous research grants from the American Heart Association, including the 2018 Merit Award. “To find much-needed solutions to the maternal health crisis is research needed that takes into account the unique social determinants and stressors, as well as clinical risk factors such as fibroids and nursing processes, that lead to the disproportionate maternal health outcomes across race and ethnicity.”

Racial and ethnic inequalities in maternal health also drive disparities in infant mortality, with black babies having an infant mortality rate of 10.8 deaths per 1,000 live births, according to the CDC, compared to 8.2 for Native American/Alaskan Native Americans and 4.6 deaths in white babies. Albert also pointed out that there are also geographic differences in women in rural communities, who have a higher mortality rate than women in urban communities.

The Health Equity Research Network on Disparities in Maternal and Child Health Outcomes is part of the multi-pronged approach of the American Heart Association’s unprecedented pledge to proactively address the social determinants of health while working to improve health equity for all communities. This is the second research network on health equity funded by the association. The Health Equity Research Network on Hypertension was launched in July 2021 with research projects focused on preventing hypertension in underserved populations, which historically have the highest prevalence of this mostly preventable but potentially fatal condition.

The deadline for submitting the pre-application notification is March 8, 2022, and full applications for the research grants are due April 21, 2022. The selected award winners will be announced at the end of June and the four-year research studies will begin on July 1st. Further information on the scholarships and instructions on how to apply can be found here here.

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