January is National Birth Defects Prevention Month. Congenital heart defects, one of the most common types of birth defects, affect nearly 1% of all infants born in the US. Learn more.
Understanding Congenital Heart Defects
Congenital heart defects are conditions present at birth that affect the structure and function of the heart. They are a leading cause of infant death from birth defects during the first year of life.1 In 2004, hospitalization costs for congenital heart defects among people of all ages totaled $1.4 billion.2 CDC works to identify causes and prevention opportunities for birth defects, including congenital heart defects, by applying a public health approach that incorporates three essential elements: surveillance or disease tracking, research to identify causes, and prevention research and programs.
Surveillance of Congenital Heart Defects
To track congenital heart defects, CDC has established state-based birth defects surveillance systems. Today, 31 states include congenital heart defects in their birth defects monitoring efforts. Information obtained from these systems is used to:
Understand the characteristics of affected children
Identify health disparities in the occurrence of congenital heart defects and survival of those affected
Plan for services across the life span
Help to ensure that children with congenital heart defects receive necessary medical care and services.
In addition, information from surveillance systems provides a basis for research studies designed to identify potential causes and opportunities for preventing congenital heart defects and promoting the health of affected people.
Identifying Preventable Causes
CDC coordinates the largest population-based effort in the U.S. to identify the preventable causes of birth defects: the National Birth Defects Prevention Study. Population-based studies like this one evaluate the occurrence of disease across a wide group of people, which is important to make sure that study results are applicable to the US population.
Recently, CDC’s study collaborators have reported important findings about some pregnancy exposures that increase the risk for congenital heart defects:
Obesity - women who are obese before pregnancy were shown to have an increased risk of having a pregnancy affected by a congenital heart defect;
Diabetes - women with diabetes diagnosed before pregnancy are more at risk of having a child with a number of birth defects, including congenital heart defects;
Smoking - women who smoked anytime during the month before pregnancy through the end of the first trimester were more likely to have a pregnancy affected by a congenital heart defect.
Next Steps in Preventing Congenital Heart Defects
CDC’s unique ability to study the occurrence of disease in the population holds promise for identifying risk factors for congenital heart defects that can be translated into prevention strategies. Although researchers are learning more about congenital heart defects, much work remains. For example, researchers are:
Investigating the possible effects of other common exposures, such as maternal fever, infection, and medications.
Exploring approaches to decrease the number of women with uncontrolled diabetes during pregnancy to prevent congenital heart defects as well as other major birth defects.
Evaluating long term outcomes, health care costs, and quality of life to identify opportunities that will support the health and wellness of children and adults affected by congenital heart defects.
CDC’s research on the causes of heart defects highlights the need for birth defects prevention strategies for women of childbearing age. Reducing obesity, providing better control of diabetes, and preventing tobacco exposure during pregnancy are all actions we can take today that hold promise for preventing congenital heart defects.
1CDC. Trends in infant mortality attributable to birth defects-United States, 1980-1995. MMWR 1998;47:773-8.
2Russo, C. A. (Thomson Medstat) and Elixhauser, A. (AHRQ). Hospitalizations for Birth Defects, 2004.HCUP Statistical Brief #24. [PDF - 1.4 MB] January 2007. U.S. Agency for Healthcare Research and Quality, Rockville,MD.