While heart disease isn’t something we normally associate with pregnancy, it’s the leading cause of pregnancy-related deaths in the United States, causing more than 1 in 4 maternal deaths.
Simply put, heart disease is the leading killer of new moms, the American Heart Association notes.
Many factors influence a woman’s cardiovascular health during pregnancy, but a key concern is high blood pressure, which can lead to a condition called preeclampsia.
A dangerous type of high blood pressure that develops during one in 25 pregnancies in the United States, preeclampsia typically develops after 20 weeks of pregnancy. And while most women fully recover and deliver healthy babies, preeclampsia can be life-threatening to both mom and the unborn baby.
One of the challenges with pregnancy-related heart disease is that many moms-to-be are unaware of the potential risk, says Joanna Zhou, MD, MPH an OB/GYN physician, at The Polyclinic, part of Optum.
“It’s something a lot of people don’t anticipate and many of the symptoms can overlap with normal pregnancy symptoms, such as headaches, changes in vision, abdominal pain and rapid swelling or weight gain,” Dr. Zhou explains.
At the same time, many risk factors for preeclampsia, such as having children after age 35, using in vitro fertilization or being overweight, are also more common today.
Prenatal care is critical
There’s no definitive way to predict who will have high blood pressure during pregnancy, however regular prenatal care can help with early detection. High blood pressure is an important sign that preeclampsia may be developing, and is also the leading cause of stroke in pregnant and postpartum patients.
Women are at higher risk for preeclampsia during their first pregnancy, if they have had preeclampsia in a previous pregnancy, or have family history of preeclampsia. Other risk factors include diabetes, chronic hypertension or kidney disease, being obese or being 35 years or older. Those who are carrying multiples like twins or triplets or who went through in vitro fertilization are also more susceptible.
Beyond high blood pressure, high levels of protein in the urine and other changes in kidney, liver and blood levels are also an indicator of preeclampsia, so testing may include checking the mother’s urine, blood and physical health.
For those who are pregnant – or planning to get pregnant – taking steps to maintain a healthy weight, having a healthy diet and reducing stress may help.
“Your healthcare provider will help determine the best course of action for preventing preeclampsia, such as a daily baby Aspirin in some circumstances,” Dr. Zhou says.
The good news is that preeclampsia symptoms usually go away within six weeks of delivery. At 34 weeks or later, experts recommend delivery as soon as medically possible. If the pregnancy is at fewer than 34 weeks, drugs might be prescribed to treat blood pressure and improve the baby’s lungs before delivery.
Women who develop preeclampsia are more likely to develop hypertension and diabetes later in life, and are also at increased chance of heart failure, especially if preeclampsia occurs in more than one pregnancy.
“I cannot stress enough the importance of a healthy lifestyle during pregnancy, as it’s a critical time for mom and baby. For a healthier pregnancy, be sure to get early and regular medical care, track blood pressure at home if advised and manage blood pressure by eating a healthy diet and getting regular physical activity,” Dr. Zhou advises.
For more information about heart health in women at all stages in life, visit GoRedforWomen.org or call 1-800-AHA-USA1 (242-8721). Sponsored by Optum in the Puget Sound, Go Red for Women is a worldwide initiative of the American Heart Association designed to increase women’s heart health awareness and serve as a catalyst for change to improve the lives of women locally, nationally and globally.