Understanding preeclampsia and the effects on heart health

June 15, 2015

Pregnancy can be an exhilarating time, and it can also be confusing. As your body goes through several changes to accommodate a growing baby, it can be difficult to identify what’s normal and what’s not. Pregnancy complications, such as preeclampsia, have the potential to affect a woman not only during her pregnancy, but they can cause long-term health effects after the baby is born.

What is preeclampsia?

Preeclampsia is a condition that occurs only during pregnancy and affects both mother and baby. It is characterized by high blood pressure and often detected after 20 weeks gestation by the presence of protein in the urine. Most cases of preeclampsia occur during pregnancy, but it can appear during delivery or up to six weeks postpartum.

Some women experience symptoms including swelling, headaches, changes in vision, lower back pain and sudden weight gain, among others. Other women experience no symptoms at all.

Heart Health

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Risk factors

Preeclampsia is one of the most common complications of pregnancy and occurs in approximately 5-8% of pregnancies. The exact cause of preeclampsia is unknown, but certain factors make a woman more likely than others to develop the condition.

Moderate-risk factors include:

  • First pregnancy
  • Over 40 or under 18
  • Family history
  • Pregnancy interval of more than 10 years
  • Carrying multiples
  • Overweight or obese

High-risk factors include:

  • Hypertensive disease during previous pregnancy
  • Chronic kidney disease
  • Autoimmune disease such as lupus or anti-phospholipid antibody syndrome
  • Type 1 or 2 diabetes
  • Chronic hypertension

Is it serious?

Preeclampsia is serious and can have detrimental effects on both mother and baby. It can inhibit a baby’s growth due to decreased blood flow to the placenta and also cause preterm labor.

Although preeclampsia normally subsides after delivery, women should be aware that there are long-lasting effects. Women with preeclampsia are:

  • 8 times more likely to develop diabetes
  • 6 times more likely to develop high blood pressure requiring treatment
  • At an increased risk for suffering stroke or heart attack

The impact preeclampsia can have on the mother’s heart poses ongoing challenges. In fact, a diagnosis of preeclampsia is considered the same as a failed stress test.

What to do if you’ve been diagnosed

Despite the possible consequences of preeclampsia, most women are able to deliver successfully and recover.

Close monitoring before and after birth is recommended to ensure the health of mother and baby. During pregnancy, you will be watched closely for indications of instability or rapid progression of the disease. Your blood pressure will be checked frequently and tests may be ordered to monitor the function of the kidneys and liver. Other tests to measure the baby’s growth may be recommended. If the baby is not growing sufficiently, or if the mother experiences preterm labor, medications may be needed to prolong the pregnancy.

Delivery of the baby and placenta is the only “cure” for preeclampsia. Women who have been diagnosed with preeclampsia during pregnancy are encouraged to adopt a heart-healthy lifestyle to reduce their risk of cardiovascular disease. Risk-reduction programs like those offered at the Adelaide C. Ward Women’s Heart Health Center at The University of Kansas Hospital provide valuable resources to help women diagnosed with preeclampsia live a heart-healthy life.

For additional information on preeclampsia and heart health, visit kumed.com/heart.

About the author

Ashley Simmons, MD, is a cardiologist and medical director of the women’s heart health program at The University of Kansas Hospital. Dr. Simmons is certified by the American Board of Internal Medicine, the Certification Board of Nuclear Cardiology and the American Society of Echocardiography. She is subcertified in cardiovascular disease.