Pregnancy Complications: A Risk Factor For Heart Disease?


It’s no secret that pregnancy taxes a woman’s body. Blood volume expands, heart rate increases and blood sugar levels spike. And while doctors have always been aware of the immediate risks associated with these increased demands on a woman’s body, new research suggests pregnancy complications are a sign of heart disease that may simmer for decades.

“Pregnancy is probably the very earliest stress test, especially for the heart,” explains my colleague Michele Voeltz, M.D., a board-certified interventional cardiologist. “In most cases, delivering the baby eliminates that stress to the system, but it doesn’t erase the underlying insufficiency in the vascular system that indicates later heart risk.”

The end result: Women whose pregnancies are riddled with problems have up to seven times the risk of heart disease compared to those who have uncomplicated pregnancies. In light of these sobering statistics, the American Heart Association has added pregnancy complications to their risk factor profile for heart disease in women.

Among the top complications of concern:

  1. Pregnancy-induced hypertension. Defined as elevated blood pressure during pregnancy, pregnancy-induced hypertension usually resolves at the end the pregnancy—but it frequently comes back with subsequent pregnancies.
  2. Pre-eclampsia. Women who developed pre-eclampsia, a sudden increase in blood pressure late in their pregnancy, have a 2-3 fold risk of dying from heart disease before age 60 compared to women without the condition. Add pre-existing hypertension to the mix, and there’s a 6-fold increased risk.
  3. Placental dysfunction. Women who experience placental problems during pregnancy (including placental abruption, placental infarction and placental insufficiency) have double the risk of cardiac death. The risk doubles if the placental problem affects your baby’s growth and development.
  4. Gestational diabetes. Women who develop diabetes during pregnancy, even if it resolves after delivery, are at increased risk of heart disease.
  5. Low birth weight. If you give birth to a low birth weight baby—even without any other pregnancy complications—you have double the risk of dying from a heart-related issue.

These numbers are alarming but if you suffered complications during pregnancy, it doesn’t mean you’re destined for a heart attack. Rather, it’s a warning sign to take steps to reduce your risk. Eat a healthy diet, exercise regularly, manage stress and get sufficient sleep. Most importantly, inform your doctor of any complications you experienced during pregnancy so he or she has a full picture of your health history and factors that may affect your risk for conditions like heart disease.

That way, instead of suffering from an unexpected heart attack at an early age, we can initiate preventive strategies to keep heart disease at bay before it’s too late. For a small percentage of women with complicated pregnancies, that means seeing a cardiologist immediately after pregnancy — talk with your OB/GYN or midwife if you have questions about whether that may include you.

The Henry Ford Women’s Heart Center is designed to provide life-changing support to women with heart disease or cardiovascular risk factors. Learn more about how a comprehensive Lifestyle Enhancement Visit may help you or call (313) 876-4540 to make an appointment.

Categories: FeelWell