High blood pressure, diabetes, and other conditions increase a person’s risk for developing heart disease. We’ve known that for quite a while now.
But what if we could find out whether a person is likely to develop those conditions before they exist?
Research has shown that what a woman experiences during pregnancy can help doctors make that prediction. After comparing the heart attack and stroke rates of women who had a pregnancy complication to those who did not, researchers have discovered that women who develop a complication during pregnancy have a higher risk of developing heart disease.
This is an important discovery on multiple levels:
- Pregnancy can act as a “crystal ball” to help doctors assess a woman’s future heart disease risk.
- Doctors have a unique opportunity to identify and help these patients earlier in their lives.
Overall, the researchers found that the risk of future heart disease doubles for women who have had complications during pregnancy.
How pregnancy can act as a ‘crystal ball’
Women go through a lot changes during pregnancy, including some that can stress the heart and cardiovascular system. Problems that occur due to this stress can give us insight to an underlying vulnerability to cardiovascular disease.
About 5 percent of women develop high blood pressure as a result of pregnancy. The same is true for gestational diabetes and preeclampsia. Usually these conditions go away after the pregnancy.
Some of the conditions during pregnancy that can provide clues about future heart disease risk include:
- Preeclampsia: Women who have preeclampsia are four times as likely to develop high blood pressure and twice as likely to develop heart disease or have a stroke in the future.
- Gestational diabetes: About half of the women who experience gestational diabetes will develop type 2 diabetes within 10 years.
- Pre-term delivery: Mothers who deliver before 37 weeks are at least twice as likely to develop heart disease in the future.
Research likewise suggests that gestational hypertension (high blood pressure) also increases the risk of heart disease. And there are some indications that babies with lower birth weights – less than the 10th percentile – also are at increased risk of future heart disease, as are their mothers.
We believe these conditions are additive, meaning that if you have two complications during pregnancy and both increase your risk by twofold, your total risk increase is fourfold.
Doctors can use this valuable information to work with patients on their risk factors. Usually this involves making lifestyle changes to lead a healthier life.
What a patient can do
If you have developed high blood pressure, diabetes, or any other complication during pregnancy, we recommend talking to your doctor. Some questions you could ask include:
- Am I at an increased risk of heart disease because of my pregnancy complication?
- Should I see a cardiologist or any other specialized doctor?
- What risk factors should I be concerned about, and what can I do about them?
Heart disease is the No. 1 killer of women in the United States. It’s rare for doctors to have the ability to determine if a woman is high-risk so early in her life. This new information could help us improve and extend the lives of many women.