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Does preeclampsia increase my risk of heart attack and stroke?

Lankenau Medical Center May 10, 2023 Maternity

You've finally made it! After months of pregnancy, followed by labor and delivery, your baby is here at last. Now comes the postpartum period, filled with things like middle of the night feeds, diaper changes galore and taking care of your own after-delivery care.

Pregnancy can leave lasting effects on your body, like stretch marks or having your feet grow a size. However, if you had preeclampsia during your pregnancy, there's another more serious lasting effect that you need to be aware of: an increased risk of heart attack and stroke.

Here's what you should know about how preeclampsia affects your cardiovascular health after pregnancy and what you can do to take charge of your health.

What is preeclampsia?

Preeclampsia is a serious condition involving high blood pressure that can occur during pregnancy. It generally occurs after 20 weeks and can impact all your organs.

Because preeclampsia can cause issues like preterm birth, stillbirth and seizures/coma (known as eclampsia), it requires close monitoring by your healthcare provider.

Symptoms of preeclampsia can include:

  • Headache that won't go away
  • Seeing spots or having blurry vision
  • Sudden weight gain
  • Pain in upper abdomen
  • Nausea and vomiting (during the second half of pregnancy)

Sometimes, though, you may not have any symptoms and your only sign of preeclampsia will be high blood pressure. This is one of the reasons it's important to attend regular prenatal appointments with your healthcare provider.

"Preeclampsia can begin even after you have delivered your baby. Though this is rare, it's important to inform your healthcare provider right away if you experience any preeclampsia symptoms in the hours and weeks after delivering," says Molly Gordon, MD, an OB/GYN with Main Line Health.

Preeclampsia increases your risk of heart attack and stroke

If you've had preeclampsia during your pregnancy, you're up to four times more likely to have a heart attack within 10 years of delivery — even if you're young. You're also two to three times more likely to have a stroke in the decade following delivery.

Even 20 years after you've had preeclampsia, your risk of heart attack and stroke are roughly double that of women who didn't have preeclampsia.

Your risk of heart attack and stroke are further increased if your preeclampsia was severe (meaning you had high blood pressure and significant protein in your urine) or if it had an early onset (meaning it started before 34 weeks).

"Preeclampsia can also cause you to develop chronic hypertension, which is an additional risk factor for both heart attack and stroke," says Dr. Gordon.

Finally, preeclampsia can increase your risk of postpartum cardiomyopathy, which is heart failure (weakening of the heart muscle) that women experience at the end of pregnancy or just after delivery.

Lowering your risk of heart attack and stroke

Knowing how your history of preeclampsia impacts your future cardiovascular health means that you can take steps to combat your increased risk of heart attack and stroke.

Reducing your risk of preeclampsia

Before you even get pregnant, you can begin lowering your risk for a future heart attack or stroke by working to lower your risk of preeclampsia. Some of your risk factors for preeclampsia are based on your family history, meaning you can't change them.

However, what you can do to lower your risk of preeclampsia and other pregnancy complications is avoid smoking before and during pregnancy, eat a nutritious diet, exercise regularly, maintain a healthy weight and drink enough water.

If you're diagnosed with gestational diabetes — a type of diabetes that only occurs during pregnancy — it's important to manage your blood sugar levels to lower your risk of preeclampsia, as well.

Some women can lower their risk of preeclampsia by taking a daily low-dose aspirin. Talk to your healthcare provider about whether this is right for you.

Adopting a heart-healthy lifestyle

Cardiovascular disease, which includes heart attack and stroke, is the number one cause of death in women.

When you're pregnant, your heart has to work extra hard. Keeping your heart healthy while pregnant has many long-term benefits that are especially important if you have been diagnosed with preeclampsia.

Some achievable ways you can lower your risk of heart disease and stroke after preeclampsia include:

  • Eating a nutritious diet (including vegetables, fruits, lean meats and whole grains)
  • Restricting salt, saturated fats and sugar in your diet
  • Exercising at least 30 minutes a day
  • Going to annual check-ups and heart screenings
  • Stopping smoking
  • Keeping a healthy weight
  • Taking blood pressure and cholesterol medications as prescribed by your healthcare provider

It's vital to monitor your blood pressure after you've had preeclampsia. Due to the increased risk of chronic hypertension, your provider may recommend monitoring your blood pressure at home in between regular screenings.

The sooner you get your blood pressure under control after preeclampsia, the better the outlook for your long-term blood pressure — and the lower your risk of heart attack and stroke.

Take control of your cardiovascular health after preeclampsia

Preeclampsia is an unwanted and scary pregnancy complication. However, knowing how it impacts your cardiovascular health means that you and your provider can take steps to reduce your risk of heart attack and stroke.

Since women's heart health can be uniquely and seriously impacted by preeclampsia, it's crucial to make heart-healthy choices and attend regular healthcare provider visits. Most importantly, remember that it's never too late to start lowering your risk factors.

Next steps:

Make an appointment with Molly Gordon, MD
Learn more about pregnancy care at Main Line Health
Learn about heart and vascular care at Main Line Health
Spotting during pregnancy: What it may mean and what to do about it

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