Problem Pregnancy? Take Steps to Protect Your Heart

With preventive care, women can avoid future heart attacks

Pregnant young woman with her husband

About 15 percent of women experience complications during pregnancy. Now it seems that many of them are likely to develop heart problems later on.

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With preventive care during or after pregnancy, however, complications such as heart attack can be prevented down the road.

“We start these women on a diet and exercise program, adding medication as needed to lower their blood pressure or blood sugar,” explains women’s heart specialist Leslie Cho, MD.

What’s the connection?

Complications that concern Cleveland Clinic obstetricians the most are preeclampsia (pregnancy-induced hypertension), gestational diabetes and preterm birth caused by early labor.

The connection between these complications and heart disease is more logical than you might think because pregnancy strains the heart.

The changes in blood vessels found in the placentas of patients with preeclampsia can mimic those seen in people with cardiovascular disease. And diabetes at any age increases the risk of heart disease.

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“Pregnancy is like a stress test for the mom. These complications are like a failed stress test that indicate risk going forward,” says maternal-fetal medicine expert Jeffrey Chapa, MD.

In addition to stressing the mother, these conditions can stress the unborn baby, restricting growth and increasing the risk of cardiovascular disease later in life.

RELATED: Herat Problems? Find Out If You Can Still Have a Baby

Going beyond Ob/Gyn care

If you experience complications during pregnancy, you’d be wise to follow up with a doctor who can assess your long-term risk and create a risk-reduction plan for you.

Because of risks to long-term health, you should see a doctor throughout pregnancy for preeclampsia, untreated hypertension or untreated diabetes. If you have other complications, you can be evaluated and treated after you deliver.

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“A primary care physician may be a good place to start. But if the number and severity of pregnancy complications as well as other risk factors makes the mom’s level of risk extremely high, it’s very important she receive more specialized care from a preventive cardiology specialist,” says Dr. Chapa.

Don’t wait to be evaluated

Preventive measures are more effective the earlier you start.  Dr. Chapa and Dr. Cho recommend the following:

  1. Find time for a cardiovascular health evaluation, even if you feel overwhelmed by life changes such as pregnancy.
  2. If you don’t have a primary care physician, now is the time to choose one. A primary care doctor will manage your overall health, while an Ob/Gyn will manage only your reproductive health.
  3. If you have a history of difficult pregnancies, are in your 40s or 50s, and have haven’t had routine preventive care, the need for an evaluation is urgent. “You have only a small window of time to reduce your risk,” says Dr. Chapa.

Getting expert help today to control your blood pressure and blood sugar through diet, exercise and possibly medication will make a world of difference in the future.

More Information
Congenital Heart Disease Treatment Guide