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Epidemiology of preeclampsia: impact of obesity

Arun Jeyabalan
DOI: http://dx.doi.org/10.1111/nure.12055 S18-S25 First published online: 1 October 2013


Preeclampsia is a pregnancy-specific disorder that affects 2–8% of all pregnancies and remains a leading cause of maternal and perinatal morbidity and mortality worldwide. Diagnosis is based on new onset of hypertension and proteinuria. Multiple organ systems can be affected, with severe disease resulting. The wide range of risk factors reflects the heterogeneity of preeclampsia. Obesity, which is increasing at an alarming rate, is also a risk factor for preeclampsia as well as for later-life cardiovascular disease. Exploring common features may provide insight into the pathophysiologic mechanisms underlying preeclampsia among obese and overweight women.

  • obesity
  • preeclampsia
  • pregnancy


Hypertensive disorders of pregnancy, including preeclampsia, consist of a broad spectrum of conditions that are associated with substantial maternal and fetal/neonatal morbidity and mortality. The incidence of hypertensive disorders in pregnancy is estimated to range between 3% and 10% among all pregnancies.1,2 Worldwide, preeclampsia and related conditions are among the leading causes of maternal mortality.2 While maternal death due to preeclampsia is less common in developed countries, preeclampsia-related maternal morbidity is high and remains a major contributor to intensive care unit admissions during pregnancy.2,3 Approximately 12–25% of growth-restricted fetuses and small-for-gestational-age infants as well as 15–20% of all preterm births are attributable to preeclampsia; the associated complications of prematurity are substantial and include neonatal deaths and serious long-term neonatal morbidity.2,4 Despite major medical advances, the only known cure for preeclampsia remains delivery of the fetus and placenta.

This article reviews the classification of hypertensive disorders of pregnancy, the global impact of preeclampsia, the risk factors for preeclampsia, the effect of maternal obesity, which is a growing risk factor for preeclampsia, and some insights into the pathogenic mechanisms by which obesity may increase the risk of preeclampsia.

Classification of Preeclampsia

Preeclampsia is a pregnancy-specific syndrome that affects many organ systems and is recognized by new onset of hypertension and proteinuria after 20 weeks of gestation. It is estimated to complicate 2–8% of all pregnancies.2 Although the precise cause is unknown, the pathophysiologic processes underlying this disorder are described as occurring in two stages.5 The first stage is characterized by reduced placental perfusion, possibly related to abnormal placentation, with impaired trophoblast invasion and inadequate remodeling of the uterine spiral arteries. The second stage refers to the maternal systemic manifestations characterized by inflammatory, metabolic, and thrombotic responses that converge to alter vascular function, which can result in multiorgan damage.6,7

Precise classification of the various hypertensive disorders of pregnancy has remained challenging due to changing nomenclature as well as to the geographic variation in accepted diagnostic criteria. For example, terms such as “toxemia” and “pregnancy-induced hypertension” are now considered outdated. Furthermore, varying diagnostic criteria are used in different regions of the world, with disagreement about the degree of hypertension, the presence/absence of proteinuria, and the categorization of disease severity.7 These inconsistencies have led to challenges in comparing and generalizing epidemiologic and other research findings.

The most commonly used classification system in the United States is based on the Working Group Report on High Blood Pressure in Pregnancy, in which four major categories are defined: gestational hypertension, preeclampsia-eclampsia, chronic hypertension, and preeclampsia superimposed on chronic hypertension (see Table 1 for criteria).8 Preeclampsia is defined as the new onset of sustained elevated blood pressure (≥140 mmHg systolic or ≥90 mmHg diastolic on at least two occasions 6 h apart) and proteinuria (at least 1+ on dipstick or ≥300 mg in a 24-h urine collection), first occurring after 20 weeks of gestation.

View this table:
Table 1

Classification of hypertensive disorders of pregnancy

Hypertensive disorderCharacteristics
Mild preeclampsiaNew onset of sustained elevated blood pressure after 20 weeks of gestation in a previously normotensive woman (≥140 mmHg systolic or ≥90 mmHg diastolic on at least two occasions 6 h apart)
Proteinuria of at least 1+ on a urine dipstick or ≥300 mg in a 24-h urine collection after 20 weeks of gestation
Severe preeclampsia (criteria for mild preeclampsia plus any of the conditions listed at right)Blood pressure ≥160 mmHg systolic or ≥110 mmHg diastolic
Urinary protein excretion of at least 5 g in a 24-h collection
Neurologic disturbances (visual changes, headache, seizures, coma)
Pulmonary edema
Hepatic dysfunction (elevated liver transaminases or epigastric pain)
Renal compromise (oliguria or elevated serum creatinine concentration; ≥1.2 mg/dL is considered abnormal in women with no history of renal disease)
Placental abruption, fetal growth restriction, or oligohydramnios
EclampsiaSeizures in a preeclamptic woman that cannot be attributed to other causes
Superimposed preeclampsiaSudden and sustained increase in blood pressure with or without a substantial increase in proteinuria
New-onset proteinuria (≥300 mg in a 24-h urine collection) in a woman with chronic hypertension and no proteinuria prior to 20 weeks of gestation
Sudden increase in proteinuria or a sudden increase in blood pressure in a woman with previously well-controlled hypertension or in a woman with elevated blood pressure and proteinuria prior to 20 weeks of gestation
Thrombocytopenia, abnormal liver enzymes, or a rapid worsening of renal function
Precise diagnosis is often challenging. High clinical suspicion is warranted, given the increased maternal and fetal/neonatal risks associated with superimposed preeclampsia
HELLP syndromePresence of hemolysis (H), elevated liver enzymes (EL), and low platelet counts (LP). HELLP syndrome may or may not occur in the presence of hypertension and is often considered a variant of preeclampsia
Gestational hypertensionNew onset of sustained elevated blood pressure after 20 weeks of gestation in a previously normotensive woman (≥140 mmHg systolic or ≥90 mmHg diastolic on at least two occasions 6 h apart)
No proteinuria

Although the symptoms and signs of preeclampsia occur along a continuum, the syndrome is often categorized as mild or severe to communicate the severity of disease and the management approach. Preeclampsia is considered severe when at least one of the following is present in addition to the defining blood pressure and proteinuria criteria8: 1) systolic blood pressure ≥160 mmHg or diastolic blood pressure ≥110 mmHg; 2) urinary protein excretion of =5 g in a 24-h collection; 3) neurologic disturbances (visual changes, headache, seizures, coma); 4) pulmonary edema; 5) hepatic dysfunction (elevated liver transaminases or epigastric pain); 6) renal compromise (oliguria or elevated serum creatinine concentration; creatinine ≥1.2 mg/dL is considered abnormal in women without a history of renal disease); 7) thrombocytopenia; 8) placental abruption, fetal growth restriction, or oligohydramnios

Eclampsia refers to seizures in a preeclamptic woman that cannot be attributed to other causes. The hypertensive disorder referred to as HELLP syndrome is defined by the presence of hemolysis (H), elevated liver transaminases (EL), and low platelet counts (LP). This may or may not occur in the presence of hypertension or proteinuria, but it is considered to be along the spectrum of preeclampsia.

The diagnosis of preeclampsia can be particularly challenging in women with preexisting hypertension and/or renal disease, since both blood pressure and urinary protein excretion increase toward the end of pregnancy. Thus, the diagnosis is based on a sudden increase in blood pressure or proteinuria and/or evidence of end-organ damage (Table 1).8

A major criticism of the various classification systems is that none have been independently evaluated for the ability to identify the subgroup of women who are at increased risk of adverse pregnancy outcomes. Recent studies have sought to develop clinically relevant definitions guided by evidence and based on predictors of adverse outcomes.9

Epidemiology of Preeclampsia

A systematic review by the World Health Organization indicates that hypertensive disorders account for 16% of all maternal deaths in developed countries, 9% of maternal deaths in Africa and Asia, and as many as 26% of maternal deaths in Latin America and the Caribbean.10 Where maternal mortality is high, most of the deaths are attributable to eclampsia rather than preeclampsia.2 Based on data from the United States National Hospital Discharge Survey, the prevalence of preeclampsia during admission for labor and delivery increased by 25% from 1987 to 2004; during the same period, the rate of eclampsia decreased by 22%, but this was not statistically significant.1 Severe morbidity associated with preeclampsia and eclampsia includes renal failure, stroke, cardiac dysfunction or arrest, respiratory compromise, coagulopathy, and liver failure.2 In a study of hospitals managed by Health Care America Corporation, preeclampsia was the second leading cause of pregnancy-related intensive care unit admissions, after obstetric hemorrhage.3

Fetal and neonatal effects

Fetal and neonatal outcomes related to preeclampsia vary around the world. Approximately 12–25% of fetal growth restriction and small-for-gestational-age infants as well as 15–20% of all preterm births are attributable to preeclampsia. The associated complications of prematurity are substantial and include neonatal deaths and serious long-term neonatal morbidity.2,4 One-quarter of stillbirths and neonatal deaths in developing countries are associated with preeclampsia/eclampsia. Infant mortality associated with preeclampsia is three times higher in low-resource settings than in high-income countries, largely due to the lack of neonatal intensive care facilities.2

Recurrence in subsequent pregnancies

Studies have reported a 7–20% chance of preeclampsia recurrence in a subsequent pregnancy.1113 This risk is further increased if a woman has had two prior preeclamptic pregnancies and is also influenced by the gestational age of onset.14 Estimates of the recurrence of preeclampsia vary widely, depending on the quality of the diagnostic criteria used. In a study performed in Iceland using strict diagnostic criteria for preeclampsia and other hypertensive disorders, the estimated recurrence of preeclampsia or superimposed preeclampsia in a second pregnancy was 13%.15

Preclampsia and later-life cardiovascular disease

Doctor Leon Chesley, a pioneer in the field of preeclampsia, and his coworkers demonstrated that, compared with controls, women who had eclampsia in any pregnancy after their first one had a mortality risk that was two- to fivefold higher over the next 35 years.16 Following this early report, others demonstrated an association between preeclampsia and later-life cardiovascular disease and related mortality. The risk of cardiovascular disease was increased eightfold in a Scandinavian population of healthy nulliparous women who developed preeclampsia severe enough to necessitate a preterm delivery.17 In a cohort of women delivering in Jerusalem, there was a twofold higher risk of mortality at 24- to 36-year follow-up in women with prior preeclampsia than in women with no history of this diagnosis.18 The deaths were largely related to cardiovascular causes. These findings have also been confirmed in other populations.14,19 Hypertension, dyslipidemia, insulin resistance, endothelial dysfunction, and vascular impairment have all been observed months to years after preeclampsia, further supporting the link between preeclampsia and subsequent cardiovascular disease.20 It remains unresolved as to whether these common risk factors lead to the development of preeclampsia and later-life cardiovascular disease or whether preeclampsia itself may contribute to this future risk. On the basis of these data, preeclampsia should be considered a cardiovascular risk factor, and women with a history of preeclampsia should have ongoing, close surveillance to prevent and/or detect cardiovascular disease.

Risk Factors for Preeclampsia

The epidemiology of preeclampsia reflects a wide range of risk factors as well as the complexity and heterogeneity of the disease. Risk factors can be classified into pregnancy-specific characteristics and maternal preexisting features (Table 2). The incidence of preeclampsia is increasing in the United States and may be related to the higher prevalence of predisposing disorders such as hypertension, diabetes, obesity, and delay in childbearing, as well as to the use of artificial reproductive technologies, which results in a higher rate of multifetal gestation.1,21

View this table:
Table 2

Common risk factors for preeclampsia

CategoryRisk factors
Pregnancy-specific factorsNulliparity
Partner-related factors (new paternity, limited sperm exposure [e.g., barrier contraception])
Multifetal gestation
Hydatidiform mole
Preexisting maternal conditionsOlder age
African-American race
Higher body mass index
Pregestational diabetes
Chronic hypertension
Renal disease
Antiphospholipid antibody syndrome
Connective tissue disorder (e.g., systemic lupus erythematosus)
Family or personal history of preeclampsia
Lack of smoking

Pregnancy-specific features


Nulliparity is a strong risk factor that almost triples the risk of preeclampsia (odds ratio 2.91, 95% confidence interval [95%CI] 1.28–6.61), according to a systematic review of controlled studies.22 It is estimated that two-thirds of all cases occur in first pregnancies that progress beyond the first trimester.23

New paternity also increases the risk of preeclampsia in a subsequent pregnancy. The association between primiparity and preeclampsia suggests an immunological mechanism, such that later pregnancies are protected against those paternal antigens.24 Supporting this concept, previous pregnancy loss, increased duration of sexual activity prior to pregnancy, or prolonged prepregnancy cohabitation confer a lower risk of preeclampsia.25 Conversely, the risk of preeclampsia is increased with the use of barrier contraceptives, with new paternity, and with donor sperm insemination.25,26

Placental factors

Excess placental volume, as occurs with hydatidiform moles and multifetal gestation, is also associated with the development of preeclampsia.2729 The disease process may occur earlier in the pregnancy and have more severe manifestations in such cases. The risk increases progressively with each additional fetus.29

Maternal characteristics


Extremes of childbearing age have been associated with preeclampsia.1 However, once adjustments for parity are made in the younger age group (since most first pregnancies occur at a younger age), the association between younger age and preeclampsia is lost.22,30 Multiple studies demonstrate a higher incidence of preeclampsia among older women, independent of parity; however, many of these do not control for preexisting medical conditions.1,22 After controlling for baseline differences, women who were 40 years of age or older had almost twice the risk of developing preeclampsia (risk ratios of 1.68 [95%CI 1.23–2.29] among primiparas and 1.96 [95%CI 1.34–2.87] among multiparas).31


The association between African-American race and preeclampsia has been confounded by the higher prevalence of chronic hypertension, often undiagnosed, in this group. While some studies demonstrate a higher risk of preeclampsia among African-American women,3234 larger prospective studies that rigorously defined preeclampsia and controlled for other risk factors did not find a significant association between preeclampsia and African-American race.35,36 More severe forms of preeclampsia may be associated with maternal nonwhite race.3234

Preexisting conditions

Many of the maternal risk factors for preeclampsia are similar to those for cardiovascular disease. Preexisting hypertension, diabetes, obesity, and vascular disorders (renal disease, autoimmune conditions) are all associated with preeclampsia.30,37 Risk is correlated with the severity of the underlying disorder. Women with underlying chronic hypertension have a 10–25% risk of developing preeclampsia compared with the general population of pregnant women.13,38,39 This risk is increased to 31% in women with a longer duration of hypertension (at least 4 years) or more severe hypertension at baseline.39 With pregestational diabetes, the overall risk of developing preeclampsia is approximately 21%.40,41 However, the risk is 11–12% with diabetes of less than 10 years’ duration, which increases to 36–54% among women with longer-standing diabetes associated with microvascular disease.40,41 The risk of preeclampsia is estimated at 20–25% in pregnant women with mild renal disease (serum creatinine of <1.5 mg/dL) but increases to greater than 50% in pregnant women with severe renal disease.42 Preeclampsia also occurs more frequently among pregnant women with autoimmune conditions such as systemic lupus erythematosus and antiphospholipid antibody syndrome.22


Elevated body mass index (BMI) is also associated with preeclampsia. Given the obesity epidemic in the United States and around the world, this is one of the largest attributable and potentially modifiable risk factors for preeclampsia. This will be discussed in further detail below.

Family history of preeclampsia

A family history of preeclampsia nearly triples the risk of preeclampsia.22


Paradoxically, cigarette smoking during pregnancy is associated with a reduced risk of preeclampsia,4345 possibly due to modulation of angiogenic factors.46

Obesity and Preeclampsia

In the United States, the percentage of women who are overweight or obese has increased by approximately 60% over the past 30 years.47 The World Health Organization estimates the prevalence of obese and overweight women (BMI ≥25 kg/m2) to be 77% in the United States, 73% in Mexico, 37% in France, 32% in China, 18% in India, and 69% in South Africa, with wide variation within each continent.48 The high prevalence of obesity and the projected increasing trend have substantial implications for pregnancy, since obesity is associated with infertility, spontaneous miscarriage, fetal malformations, thromboembolic complications, gestational diabetes, stillbirth, preterm delivery, cesarean section, fetal overgrowth, and hypertensive complications.49

Obesity increases the overall risk of preeclampsia by approximately two- to threefold.50 The risk of preeclampsia increases progressively with increasing BMI, even within the normal range. Importantly, it is not only the risk of late or mild forms of preeclampsia that is increased, but also the risk of early and severe forms of preeclampsia, which are associated with greater perinatal morbidity and mortality.51,52 The increased risk is present in both Caucasian and African-American women.51 The association between preeclampsia risk and obesity has also been demonstrated in varying populations across the globe.53,54 Supporting the concept that obesity may play a causal role is the finding that weight loss reduces the risk of preeclampsia.55 Some studies suggest that excessive maternal weight gain is associated with the risk of preeclampsia, although these may be confounded by the increase in fluid retention that occurs with preeclampsia, thereby contributing to higher weight.56 Although weight loss is discouraged in pregnancy, obesity is a potentially modifiable risk factor for preeclampsia. Weight loss prior to pregnancy is encouraged in overweight and obese women to decrease the risk of adverse outcomes.49

Obesity is a risk factor for both preeclampsia and cardiovascular disease.57 Exploring common mechanisms may provide insight into the pathophysiology of preeclampsia, the potential areas for further investigation, and the possible targets for therapy. Below, a few features that are shared by preeclampsia and cardiovascular disease, including insulin resistance, inflammation, oxidative stress and vascular dysfunction, and increased levels of adipokines and angiogenic factors, are briefly highlighted. A detailed discussion is provided by Kaaja (1998).58

Insulin resistance

Insulin resistance is estimated to be present in two-thirds of obese individuals. It is also a risk factor for cardiovascular disease and type 2 diabetes. Insulin resistance is more common in women with preeclampsia and can persist for as long as 17 years after a preeclamptic pregnancy, thus increasing cardiovascular risk.58,59 Features of the metabolic syndrome (obesity, hypertension, insulin resistance, impaired glucose tolerance, and dyslipidemia) are also observed more commonly in women with preeclampsia.58 In metabolic syndrome, it has been proposed that obesity contributes to hypertension by multiple mechanisms that include reduction in available nitric oxide due to oxidative stress, increase in sympathetic tone, and increased release of angiotensinogen by adipose tissue.60 Dyslipidemia and the increase in free fatty acids released from adipocytes have also been posited to contribute to oxidative stress and insulin resistance.


Inflammation is a common feature of obesity, cardiovascular disease, and preeclampsia. Adipose tissue generates several inflammatory mediators that can alter endothelial function and are produced more actively in obese individuals. C-reactive protein, an inflammatory mediator produced by the liver as well as by adipocytes, is elevated in obese individuals and is associated with cardiovascular morbidity. Circulating C-reactive protein rises early in pregnancy – prior to the development of preeclampsia – and appears to have a stronger association with preeclampsia among obese women.61,62 Interleukin-6, another potent inflammatory mediator, can lead to vascular damage and is associated with obesity, insulin resistance, and later-life cardiovascular disease.63 Circulating concentrations are also higher in obese women and in women with preeclampsia, indicating a potential link.64 Tumor necrosis factor alpha is also produced in adipose tissue and is associated with insulin resistance, endothelial damage, and oxidative stress. Circulating levels are increased in women with obesity as well as in those with preeclampsia.65 However, studies demonstrate that levels of tumor necrosis factor alpha are not higher in obese pregnant women than in nonobese controls.66,67

Oxidative stress

In preeclampsia, oxidative stress is postulated to lead to altered endothelial function and resultant vascular dysfunction.58 Obesity is also associated with oxidative stress, possibly secondary to increased inflammation and free fatty acids as well as lower concentrations of circulating antioxidants.60,68 Thus, oxidative stress may predispose obese women to the development of preeclampsia.


Leptin and adiponectin, two substances produced by adipose tissue, affect metabolism and have been linked to cardiovascular disease. Obesity is associated with elevated leptin and decreased adiponectin concentrations.69 Circulating leptin is increased in preeclampsia and correlates with maternal BMI.59,70,71 Since leptin is also produced by the placenta, the placenta is likely a major contributor to circulating concentrations of leptin during pregnancy. Adiponectin has insulin-sensitizing effects, is decreased in obese individuals, and is inversely correlated with cardiovascular risk. There is not yet a consensus on the precise relationship between adiponectin concentrations and preeclampsia, as studies have reported higher as well as lower concentrations.7274 Based on the mechanism of action of these adipokines as well as their association with cardiovascular disease and obesity, circulating levels may be relevant in preeclampsia, particularly among obese and overweight women.

Angiogenic factors

The balance of circulating angiogenic factors is altered in preeclampsia compared with normal pregnancy, even weeks prior to development of the clinical condition.75 Levels of placental growth factor (PGF), a member of the vascular endothelial growth factor family, are lower in preeclamptic women. This is likely due to higher circulating concentrations of soluble Flt-1, an antiangiogenic factor that binds and inactivates PGF and vascular endothelial growth factor.76 Some studies have demonstrated that levels of both sFlt-1 and PGF are lower in obese pregnant women,77 while others have shown that higher BMI is associated with higher sFlt-1 concentrations and a higher sFlt-1/PGF ratio indicative of an antiangiogenic milieu even in early pregnancy.78 Although findings are not consistent across studies, the altered angiogenic milieu with obesity may have implications in the development of preeclampsia.

Lifestyle factors such as diet, sleep disorders, and physical activity are also associated with obesity and cardiovascular disease. Many of these factors have also been implicated in the development preeclampsia, thus raising the possibility of a mechanistic link through which obesity may increase the risk of preeclampsia.57

Exploring Common Mechanisms

Perturbation in nitric oxide (NO) synthesis and bioavailability, which leads to vascular dysfunction, has been a key mechanistic pathway that has garnered attention in the context of cardiovascular disease and obesity.79 Asymmetric dimethylarginine (ADMA) is a competitive agonist of L-arginine, the precursor of NO synthesis. ADMA functions as an NO synthase inhibitor, resulting in reduced NO production and increased superoxide generation. Elevated ADMA concentrations are associated with inflammation, insulin resistance, dyslipidemia, obesity, and cardiovascular disease.79 Interestingly, circulating ADMA has been shown to decrease with weight loss.80,81 Several studies have demonstrated higher concentrations of ADMA in women with preeclampsia and even prior to its onset, at midgestation.82,83L-arginine has been used to reverse some of the effects of ADMA in clinical studies and has been used safely in pregnancy.84 One randomized controlled trial demonstrated that preeclampsia was reduced in a high-risk population treated with a combination of L-arginine and antioxidant therapy versus placebo or antioxidants alone.85 Further study is needed to elucidate the effects of L-arginine administration on the risk of preeclampsia in other populations, including obese women. Thus, a better understanding of the relationships between obesity, preeclampsia, and cardiovascular disease may shed light on common mechanisms and potential targets for therapy.


In summary, the impact of preeclampsia on women and their babies is profound. The wide range of risk factors highlights the heterogeneity of this syndrome. Obesity, a growing problem worldwide, is a risk factor for both preeclampsia and later-life cardiovascular disease. Further exploration into the mechanisms underlying these links has the potential to reveal the pathophysiologic processes that lead to preeclampsia as well as potential targets for therapy.



This work was supported by the National Institutes of Health grant number P01 HD30367.

Declaration of interest

The author has no relevant interests to declare.


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