Preeclampsia during pregnancy increases the risk of cardiovascular problems later on.
If you think preeclampsia sounds scary, that’s because it is, and researchers have found that it is even scarier than once believed due to the lifelong impact it can have on a person’s body.
According to the Mayo Clinic, Preeclampsia is a medical condition that arises during pregnancy around week 20 or later, causing blood vessels “around the uterus [to] constrict.” The condition is “characterized” by an increase in blood pressure and even “a slight rise in blood pressure may be a sign of preeclampsia.” Other signs of preeclampsia include damage to the body’s organs, often the liver and kidneys, proteinuria, which is protein in the urine, headaches, and water retention. The water retention often leads to swollen hands and feet. The Preeclampsia Foundation says that somewhere between five and eight pregnancies develop into preeclampsia or HELLP syndrome, a “variant” of preeclampsia.
Without treatment, preeclampsia can cause “serious complications” for both parent and child, including potential death. As of right now, the only true cure for preeclampsia is to deliver the baby. It was once believed that delivery was, more or less, the end of problems caused by preeclampsia, but it turns out that is far from the case.
Doctors and researchers have discovered that people that develop preeclampsia during pregnancy are much more likely to have heart complications in the future. Researchers at Penn State find that preeclampsia during pregnancy may actually permanently alter blood vessels. This increases the risk for heart disease to roughly that of a smoker. In the study, pregnant people with preeclampsia were compared with those without the condition. They found that blood vessels began to function differently postpartum in people that experience preeclampsia during pregnancy, opening approximately 50 percent less.
Anna Stanhewicz, a post-doctoral fellow at the College of Health and Human Development at Penn State, says, “We were able to show that even though the symptoms of preeclampsia go away once [they give] birth, there’s still an underlying dysfunction in the blood vessels. This suggests that something happens during a preeclamptic pregnancy that permanently changes the way blood vessels function.”
Dr. Clare Arnott, a cardiologist at the Royal Prince Alfred Hospital in Australia, says preeclampsia increases the risk of high blood pressure later in life by two to four percent, doubles the risk of a heart attack or stroke, and increases the risk of death by one to two percent. “Even more concerningly,” she says, is that “we’re finding the disease occurs prematurely, up to a decade earlier.”
Heart disease is one of the leading causes of cis women and it turns out that it may be, in part, due to the fact that people are unaware of the risks preeclampsia poses years after it goes away. The Heart Foundation’s Julie Anne Mitchell says that it is a big concern because “the care often stops” after people give birth. For people that experience preeclampsia, it is essential to “focus on maintaining good heart health and regular check-ups over the coming years…for long-term health and wellbeing.”
The best way to reduce the risk of future cardiovascular issues is to take care of yourself and regularly get checked out by a doctor. A complete list from the Preeclampsia Foundation includes:
- Regular checkups with a doctor
- Talking to a doctor within a year after giving birth about your long term care
- Getting regular exercise
- Eating a “heart-healthy” diet
- Quit smoking
- Knowing your family history
- Maintaining a “healthy” weight
- Asking a doctor about taking a low dose aspirin
- Knowing your average blood sugar, blood pressure, and cholesterol numbers
Jo Dean, a mother of two who always thought herself to be healthy, went to a doctor after having chest pains to discover she had a 90 percent blockage in her main artery. She had preeclampsia while pregnant with her younger child. Jo says, “I wish I had known the risks and monitored my heart health better over the last 10 years…Please go and get yourself checked out regularly…If i had that knowledge, I would’ve been very keen to have regular checks from the time that my children were born.”