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Complications during pregnancy mean an increased risk of heart disease



Heart and Vascular Women's Health Primary Care
Complications during pregnancy

“Pregnancy is a stress on the body, and sometimes cardiovascular complications can develop in otherwise healthy women. For these moms, regular screening and healthy lifestyle practices both during and after the pregnancy are especially important to make sure we are preventing long-term heart problems,” says Alexandra Ward, M.D., cardiologist and Program Director of Riverside’s Women’s Heart Center.

Two of the most common complications during pregnancy, gestational diabetes and high blood pressure, increase the risk of maternal cardiovascular disease both during and after the pregnancy.

Approximately 5%-10% of pregnant women are diagnosed with hypertension, also known as high blood pressure, while an estimated 6%-9% have gestational diabetes. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the American Heart Association , both conditions are on the rise.

The good news is regular checkups and a healthy lifestyle are two proven strategies to keep mom and baby healthy and safe. Even if it has been years since the high-risk pregnancy, women should still be sure to talk to their physician due to their increased risk of cardiovascular disease.

What to know about hypertension in pregnancy

Hypertensive disorders, including high blood pressure and preeclampsia, typically occur in the second half of pregnancy.

High blood pressure during pregnancy is known as gestational hypertension. It is the result of narrowed blood vessels and can make it difficult for blood to reach the placenta to nourish the baby. As a result, mom and baby are at higher risk of preterm delivery and preeclampsia.

Preeclampsia is a similar but separate condition. It also involves a spike in blood pressure but is also accompanied by excessive swelling and protein in the urine. Preeclampsia is the leading cause of preterm birth and can be dangerous to both mom and baby.

Hypertensive disorders during pregnancy increase the risk of cardiovascular disease later in life, including heart failure, coronary artery disease and hypertension.

Gestational diabetes and your heart

Gestational diabetes is a persistent, elevated blood sugar first diagnosed during pregnancy. And, like other forms of diabetes, it has a significant impact on cardiovascular health. Women who experience gestational diabetes face an increased risk of heart attack and stroke.

Diabetes and heart disease are known to often occur at the same time. Gestational diabetes was excluded from this association — until recently. Research now shows that gestational diabetes is both an immediate danger to mom and baby and increases cardiovascular health risk during and after the pregnancy.

“Women with a history of gestational diabetes have greater than a 40% risk of heart attack and stroke compared to women without gestational diabetes,” says Dr. Ward. “In fact, gestational diabetes increases a woman’s overall cardiovascular disease risk, similar to the risk of gestational hypertension.”

A healthy lifestyle reduces the lifetime risk of cardiovascular disease

A healthy lifestyle can reduce your risk for cardiovascular disease both during pregnancy and throughout your life.

Some important steps to take include:

  • Achieve and maintain a healthy body weight
  • Quit smoking Increase physical activity to 30 minutes most days of the week
  • Eat more fruits and vegetables
  • Eat less packaged and fried foods
  • Drink water and limit sugar-sweetened drinks

“Lifestyle changes are challenging. Talk to your doctor about what support is available to you as you work towards healthier choices. Even small changes can have a big impact,” says Dr. Ward.

Talk to your doctor about your heart health

If you are pregnant and have experienced a complication such as gestational diabetes, gestational hypertension, a small belly for the baby’s gestational age or preterm labor, it is important that you get screened by a cardiologist. Even if the pregnancy was many years ago, your risk is still higher and you should be screened.

To make an appointment with the Riverside Women’s Heart Center to discuss your cardiovascular list, please call the location nearest you.  

Riverside Regional Medical Center Clinic: 757-594-2074
Port Warwick Clinic: 757-873-0360
Hampton Clinic: 757-827-7754
Williamsburg Clinic: 757-259-9540
Gloucester Clinic: 804-694-5553

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