The last thing on your mind when you’re pregnant is the possibility of your pregnancy leading to heart disease. But it can happen in up to 4 percent of women who didn’t have a heart problem before they became pregnant.
You’ll experience many changes during pregnancy—mood swings, weight gain and a growing belly, fatigue, and even food cravings. These changes are normal and temporary.
But if you develop any heart-related conditions during pregnancy, you’ll need to work closely with your doctor and consider consulting a cardiologist to receive the appropriate monitoring and care.
Here are some of the most common heart conditions that develop with pregnancy and what you need to know to protect your heart health in the future.
Arrhythmias, disturbances of the heart rhythm, are the most common cardiac complication during pregnancy, with palpitations and high heart rates the top pregnancy-related arrhythmias. Their severity depends on several factors, including your personal and family history of arrhythmias. Treatment is usually conservative but depends upon your diagnosis and the frequency and duration of your symptoms.
Gestational hypertension is high blood pressure that usually develops later in pregnancy and resolves about 12 weeks after birth. You may be at risk for developing high blood pressure or cardiovascular disease in the future, and you should get an annual checkup with this in mind.
Gestational diabetes, characterized by high blood sugar, occurs in about 4 percent of all pregnancies as a result of hormonal changes. Usually blood sugar levels return to normal about six weeks after delivery. Studies indicate that young women with gestational diabetes have a substantially increased risk of future cardiovascular disease compared to women who did not develop the condition.
Preeclampsia occurs in up to 8 percent of pregnancies in the United States. Symptoms usually begin in the third trimester and include increasing blood pressure, swelling, and abnormally high amounts of protein (proteinuria) in the urine—all of which resolve with the baby’s birth.
The leading cause of premature birth, preeclampsia is a dangerous condition that must be watched closely. Preeclampsia has been linked to future development of cardiovascular disease. As with gestational hypertension and gestational diabetes, women with preeclampsia should have regular screening for cardiovascular risk factors.
Peripartum cardiomyopathy is a weakened heart that’s diagnosed within the final month of pregnancy or within five months after delivery. It complicates 1 in every 3,000 to 4,000 deliveries and is most common after age 30. Pregnancy and childbirth stress the heart, which must work harder to pump about 30 percent to 50 percent more blood during pregnancy. Women with a prior history of peripartum cardiomyopathy are strongly counseled against future pregnancy because of increased risk of recurrence.
Controlling Your Risk Factors
Heart attacks during pregnancy are rare—1 in 35,000 pregnancies. Chronic hypertension, maternal age, diabetes, and preeclampsia are risk factors. The changes in your body during pregnancy, including the shift in hormones and increased blood volume, can increase the heart attack risk up to 12 weeks after delivery.
Keeping your cardiac risk factors under control—weight, blood pressure, cholesterol, and diet—is always important, and may be especially important for you as you get older.