Some pregnancy complications can signal risk for heart disease after delivery

Preeclampsia and gestational hypertension are indicators for an increased chance of heart disease later in life.

Preeclampsia occurs in about 5% to 8% of pregnant women after the 20th week of pregnancy or after giving birth. High blood pressure is accompanied by protein in the urine or other physical symptoms, such as a severe persistent headache and vision changes.

Because heart disease is the No. 1 cause of death in women, patients who have experienced either gestational high blood pressure or preeclampsia need to be vigilant about their heart health for the rest of their lives.

Research suggests “preeclampsia doesn’t actually cause future cardiovascular disease — rather, bodily changes during pregnancy unmask a woman’s underlying risk for cardiovascular disease,” said Lyndsey D. Neese, M.D., maternal-fetal medicine physician with Norton Children’s Maternal-Fetal Medicine and medical director for obstetrics, Norton Healthcare. “In that sense, having a history of preeclampsia is similar to having a family history of heart disease or stroke.”

Women who have had gestational high blood pressure or preeclampsia are three to four times more likely to develop high blood pressure as early as five years after delivery compared with women who had pregnancies with no complications. They also have at least two times the risk for heart disease, including plaque buildup, heart attack, congestive heart failure or cardiomyopathy, which causes an enlarged heart.

Patients can decrease their risk by following the American Heart Association’s lifestyle recommendations. These include making healthy food choices, exercising, quitting smoking and practicing stress management.

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