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How pregnancy may increase a woman’s chance of heart disease

Heart Health | Women’s Health | February 19, 2020
heart hands on pregnant bellies
New research shows four conditions women may develop during pregnancy that can increase their risk for heart disease.

“Heart disease is often portrayed in the media as a man’s disease,” says Jane Luu, MD, a cardiologist at PeaceHealth Southwest Medical Center. “But it’s actually a disease that has a very powerful impact on women.”

Did you know?

  • Heart disease is the number one killer of women, outpacing breast cancer, stroke, COPD and lung cancer combined.
  • Heart disease is a women’s disease, killing 300,000 women each year; approximately one woman every minute.
  • 90% of women have at least one risk factor for developing heart disease.

And, in the past few years, doctors have discovered new risk factors associated with pregnancy, which only reinforces that good heart health starts earlier than most people might think.

Heart disease risk factors with pregnancy

  • Pre-term delivery, which is delivery at less than 37 weeks. Worldwide, 5-12% of deliveries are pre-term, and now doctors are discovering that a woman who delivers pre-term has a higher risk of hospitalization for heart disease and worse long-term cardiovascular outcomes compared to a woman who didn’t deliver pre-term. And this is true for up to 10 years after the pre-term delivery.
  • Preeclampsia. A woman who develops high blood pressure after five months of pregnancy has more than three times the greater risk for high blood pressure, double the risk of heart disease, and almost double the risk of stroke and blood clots in the legs. Some of those risks can last for up to 14 years.
  • Diabetes. A woman diagnosed with diabetes after her first trimester has a seven times greater risk of developing diabetes later in life. Her chances of having a heart attack also increase by four and her risk of stroke increases by two.
  • Weight gain. If the weight a woman gains during pregnancy is not lost about a year after birth, it is associated with worse cardiovascular effects.

“Studies are still being done to learn more about the connection between these conditions and heart disease, but these are really important for us all to be aware of,” Dr. Luu says. “It’s also important to know that even if a woman has these conditions while pregnant, she can still lower her risk by following the doctor-approved recommendations (outlined below).”

What is heart disease?
Heart (cardiovascular) disease generally refers to conditions that involve narrowed or blocked blood vessels that can lead to a heart attack, chest pain (angina) or stroke. Other heart conditions, such as those that affect your heart's muscle, valves or rhythm, also are considered forms of heart disease.

While these statistics are startling, there’s some good news to share: 80% of all heart disease is preventable.

That’s right, 80%.

Heart disease awareness is key

According to Dr. Luu, knowledge is a woman’s most powerful defense against heart disease. Whether young or old, it’s important for women of all ages to understand their risk factors, and how to make lifestyle changes that can drastically reduce their risk for developing heart disease.

Heart disease risk factors for men and women                        Heart disease risk factors specific to women

Smoking

Pre-term delivery of a child (less than 37 weeks)

High cholesterol

Weight gain from pregnancy not lost within a year after delivery

High blood pressure

High blood pressure and/or diabetes developed during pregnancy

Diabetes

Breast cancer treatments (radiation, chemotherapy)

Obesity

Autoimmune diseases* (e.g., lupus, rheumatoid arthritis)

Physical inactivity

Depression*

* While men can have this, it is seen more frequently in women.

How to lower your risk of heart disease

To address these risk factors and lower your chances of getting heart disease, it’s important to do the following:

  • Check your blood pressure regularly and try to keep it at healthy levels. Uncontrolled blood pressure can lead to heart disease.woman taking blood pressure
  • Get tested for diabetes. Uncontrolled diabetes raises your risk of heart disease.
  • Quit smoking. If you don’t smoke, don’t start. “Women who smoke have a 25% higher chance of developing heart disease, compared to men,” explains Dr. Luu. “Smoking is the biggest modifiable risk factor. If you smoke and you stop today, your risk of heart disease drops significantly.”
  • Check your blood cholesterol and triglycerides. Talk with your doctor about how often to have these checked and ways to keep them in a healthy range. 
  • Make healthy food choices. Being overweight or obese raises your risk of heart disease. Dr. Luu recommends a Mediterranean diet that is low in red meat, sugar and saturated fat and high in vegetables, fruit, nuts and other healthful foods.
  • Limit alcohol consumption to one to two drinks a day. Drinking too much alcohol can harm your health in many ways.
  • Manage your stress levels. Some stress is good, but too much stress for too long can cause serious problems. See how stressed you are.
  • Exercise daily or at least 2-3 times a week. Aim for 150 minutes of moderate exercise a week or 75 minutes of vigorous exercise once a week, plus strength training twice per week.women lifting weights
  • Get enough sleep. Dr. Luu recommends seven hours of sleep each night to help you stay healthy. Read tips on good sleep habits.
  • Take care of your teeth.  Dental hygiene is absolutely important mainly because poor hygiene can predispose you to endocarditis/transient bacteremia. Regularly brush, floss and see your dentist.
  • Connect with others. Did you know loneliness can play a role in developing or making diseases worse? It's all the more reason to give priority to girls' nights, family meal times, date nights and other in-person activities.

Dr. Luu’s most important piece of advice? Listen to your heart, pay attention to your body and talk to your doctor before the risk factors become issues.

“Establish yourself with a provider who you can have those important discussions with about diabetes, blood pressure, cholesterol and your activity levels,” she says. “It’s about sitting down with your provider, early on, so that they can help with these risk factors before they become problems.”

Want to learn more about heart health and pregnancy?

Watch a recording of Dr. Luu’s talk about women’s heart health and learn to recognize the warning signs of a heart attack.

Curious if you have a risk for heart disease?

How healthy is your heart? Take our heart quiz to determine your specific risk factors.

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