By Charlotte Hilton Andersen
Updated: May 03, 2014

Here's some unsettling news: According to a new study, the U.S. is one of just eight countries worldwide that's seen an increase in maternal deaths since 2003.

Research published this week in The Lancet ranks the United States at 60 out of 180 countries in terms of maternal death, with 18.5 out of every 100,000 women dying during childbirth-more than double Saudi Arabia (7) and Canada (8.2), and more than triple that of the United Kingdom (6.1).

"There's no reason that a country with the resources and the medical expertise that the U.S. has should see maternal deaths going up," says Christopher Murray, Director of the Institue of Health Metrics and Evaluation.

But why is it happening? Lack of access to prenatal care and other health services, and high rates of c-sections can all affect maternal health, but another important factor is age, says Jon Matsunaga, M.D., Chief of Obstetrics and Gynecology at Providence Saint John's Health Center in California. "As you get older, your chances of medical illness increase and of course, when you get pregnant on top of those existing conditions, it's much more risky."

Thanks to fertility meds, multiple births have risen in the U.S., which could also be a source of the problem, and when you combine the increasing numbers of older mothers and the higher rates of fertility treatments, the risks to the mother go up exponentially. Indeed, the National Center For Health Statistics reports that in the past decade the rate of twins for women aged 35 to 40 has gone up 100 percent. For women 40 and up, it's risen 200 percent.

Young women aren't immune, either. Pregnant women in their 20s saw an increased risk of death, probably due to the sharp rise in obesity, heart disease, and diabetes.

Still, the number of women affected is very small, the experts say. Because the rate of maternal death is so low, even a small number in the increase of deaths can look like a big jump in statistics. Another bright spot in all of this, according to study author Nicholas Kassebaum: "Most maternal deaths are preventable, and we can do better."



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