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Experts say it’s important for a pregnant person to monitor their blood pressure. Eclipse Images/Getty Images
  • Researchers say women who’ve had preeclampsia during pregnancy are more likely to have a heart attack or stroke.
  • They say the risks can remain higher even 20 years after pregnancy.
  • Experts say this study is important because heart disease is the leading cause of death for women in the United States.
  • They add that a healthy diet and regular exercise can help lower the risk of preeclampsia.

Women who have preeclampsia are more likely to have a heart attack or stroke within seven years of giving birth compared with their peers without the condition.

A study of more than 1 million pregnant women published today in the European Journal of Preventive Cardiology reports that risks remained elevated more than 20 years after delivery.

“The high risk of cardiovascular disease after preeclampsia manifests at young ages and early after delivery,” Dr. Sara Hallum, author of the study and a researcher at the University of Copenhagen, Denmark, said in a press release.

“This indicates that interventions to prevent heart attacks and strokes in affected women cannot wait until middle age when they become eligible for conventional cardiovascular screening programs,” she added.

It has already been established that preeclampsia results in an elevated risk of cardiovascular disease later in life, but the study is the first to determine how soon after pregnancy this can begin.

The research involved 1,157,666 pregnant women in Denmark between 1978 and 2017.

The women were grouped into those with and without preeclampsia. All of the participants were free of cardiovascular diseases before pregnancy. The women were followed for up to 39 years following delivery.

“This allowed us to evaluate exactly when cardiovascular disease occurs in women with and without preeclampsia, and to estimate risk in different age groups and at various durations of follow-up,” Hallum said.

Overall, the Danish researchers found that women who had preeclampsia were four times more likely to experience a heart attack and three times more likely to have a stroke within 10 years of giving birth than their peers without preeclampsia.

Even 20 years later, the risk of stroke or heart attack was twice as high in the group with preeclampsia.

The researchers also reported that women aged between 30 to 39 years of age who had preeclampsia have a five-fold higher risk of heart attack and a three-fold higher risk of stroke than their peers of similar age without a history of preeclampsia.

Women aged over 50 with a history of preeclampsia still had double the risk of heart attack or stroke compared with their peers without such a history.

Dr. Brittney Johnson, an OB/GYN with Keck Medicine of USC, says the findings of the study are important.

“This is a clinically significant finding given the leading cause of death for all women of all ethnicities and ages is heart disease… That is essentially saying that these women have an increased risk of mortality from a disease that ‘resolved’ years prior,” Johnson told Healthline.

In the United States, preeclampsia occurs in roughly 1 in 25 pregnancies. It happens when women who previously had normal blood pressure develop sudden high blood pressure. A pregnant woman may also have protein in her urine and other health issues after 20 weeks of pregnancy.

Those more at risk of preeclampsia include women:

  • Giving birth for the first time.
  • Having chronic high blood pressure or chronic kidney disease.
  • Pregnant with twins or other multiples.
  • Having type 1 or type 2 diabetes.
  • With obesity.
  • Older than 40.

Symptoms of preeclampsia may sometimes be mistaken for regular pregnancy symptoms such as nausea and vomiting.

Other symptoms include changes in vision, sudden weight gain, and breathing difficulties.

“We mostly diagnose (preeclampsia) in routine prenatal care and the first change is often in blood pressure. But there are other things that the patient may see… right upper quadrant pain, severe headache, and visual changes. Edema, rapid increases in edema,” Dr. G. Thomas Ruiz, the OB/GYN lead at MemorialCare Orange Coast Medical Center in California, told Healthline.

While numerous factors can contribute to the development of preeclampsia, there are steps women can take to reduce their risk.

“Optimize health prior to pregnancy, incorporate healthy lifestyle interventions like eating balanced meals and performing regular aerobic exercise, and stop or decrease toxic exposures like cigarette use,” Johnson said.

“Establish prenatal care early, ask your provider if you would benefit from low-dose aspirin during pregnancy to decrease your risk of developing preeclampsia. Women with high-risk factors should be monitoring their blood pressure at home. Be aware of preeclampsia symptoms to look out for. Know how to contact your provider or instructions for what you should do if you have urgent questions or concerns,” she added.

The experts who spoke with Healthline say the best thing women can do to protect their cardiovascular health during and following pregnancy is to regularly meet with a healthcare provider.

“You can’t always control whether or not you get preeclampsia during pregnancy. But in terms of us managing it, the most important thing that we do… is basically prenatal care. Make sure you’re in early for prenatal care, and that you’re having regular prenatal care visits,” Ruiz said.

Having annual preventative care visits, experts say, is also important.

“Advocate for yourself, if your concerns are not being addressed you can get second opinions,” Johnson said.