It’s no secret that pregnancy taxes a woman’s body. Blood volume expands and heart rates increase. Although doctors have always been aware of the immediate risks associated with these increased demands on a woman’s body, research suggests pregnancy complications may be a sign of heart disease that can simmer for decades.
“Pregnancy can act as an early stress test for the heart,” says Ryhm Radjef, M.D., a cardiologist with Henry Ford Health. “For most women, this stress to the system is completely relieved at delivery, but for others, there may still be an underlying heart risk.”
Women who dealt with certain complications during their pregnancies and childbirth such as pre-eclampsia and gestational diabetes may have a greater risk of developing heart disease later in life compared to those who have uncomplicated pregnancies. In light of this, the American Heart Association has added pregnancy complications to their risk factor profile for heart disease in women.
Among the top five complications of concern are:
- Gestational 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.
- Pre-eclampsia. Women who developed pre-eclampsia, a sudden increase in blood pressure late in their pregnancy, have a two- to three-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 six-fold increased risk.
- 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.
- Gestational diabetes. Women who develop diabetes during pregnancy, even if it resolves after delivery, are at increased risk of heart disease.
- Low birth weight. For women who give birth to a low birth weight baby — even without any other pregnancy complications — the risk of dying from a heart-related issue doubles.
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 and take your heart health seriously. Be sure to eat a healthy diet, exercise regularly, manage stress and get sufficient sleep.
“Most importantly, inform your doctor of any complications you experienced during pregnancy, even years after giving birth, so he or she has a full picture of your health history and factors that may affect your risk for conditions like heart disease,” advises Dr. Radjef.
How healthy is your heart? Take the heart risk quiz to find out. Then, schedule an appointment with your primary care provider or find a heart expert at henryford.com or by calling 1-800-436-7936.
Dr. Ryhm Radjef serves as the director for the Women's Heart and Cardio-Obstetric Program at Henry Ford Health.