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School of Medicine
Difficult Pregnancies and the Risk of Heart Disease
High blood pressure and smoking are well known as important risk factors for heart disease. But there’s another major risk factor for cardiovascular disease that comes as a surprise to many women: preeclampsia and gestational diabetes during pregnancy.
Symptoms of preeclampsia and gestational diabetes tend to disappear shortly after pregnancy. But they can leave a lasting imprint on your health.
If you experienced these pregnancy complications, find out what it means for your heart health.
Preeclampsia is characterized by pregnancy-induced high blood pressure, along with protein in the urine. Eclampsia is a more severe form of this problem that can lead to seizures, coma and even death.
Multiple studies indicate that women with a history of preeclampsia have double the risk of dying from a heart disease event such as heart attack or stroke in the decades following pregnancy. Research suggests that risk is even higher for those women with preeclampsia who miscarried or delivered their babies prematurely.
Gestational diabetes also puts women at risk for future problems. This condition occurs when a pregnant woman develops high blood sugar and other diabetes symptoms that weren’t present before pregnancy.
According to a study published in The Lancet, women who experienced gestational diabetes have a seven-fold increase in the risk of developing Type 2 diabetes, and diabetes is itself a major risk factor for heart disease. But research suggests that even when women with gestational diabetes do not go on to develop Type 2 diabetes, they are still at heightened risk for heart disease in the decades to come.
The Heart Disease Link
Researchers are still trying to understand the link between pregnancy complications and heart disease, says Johns Hopkins cardiologist Erin Michos, M.D., M.H.S., associate director of preventive cardiology at the Ciccarone Center for the Prevention of Heart Disease.
It’s possible that pregnancy complications are a sign that a woman already has an underlying problem with blood vessel function. “Maybe pregnancy was like a stress test that unmasked a silent problem,” Michos says.
On the other hand, some experts have theorized that problems such as preeclampsia could cause blood vessel changes that lead to disease later in life. “There’s a chicken-or-egg question,” Michos says. “It’s uncertain what came first.”
Live a Healthy Lifestyle
Whatever the link, it’s important for women and their doctors to be aware of the risk, Michos notes.
Many health care providers don’t ask women about past pregnancies, she adds, so be sure to tell your current doctor if you experienced these problems. She also recommends such women be screened more closely for symptoms of heart disease and Type 2 diabetes.
Eating well, exercising and avoiding tobacco are important for everyone. But these healthy habits could be even more important for women who experienced complications during pregnancy. “You had these problems happen to you, but what you do now really impacts your health for the second half of your life,” Michos says. “You should be even more vigilant with trying to maintain a healthy lifestyle.”