Harvard Heart Letter

Heart beat: Preeclampsia poses later heart risk

Heart beat

Preeclampsia poses later heart risk

Aside from the creation of a new family member, pregnancy has few long-term effects on health. Preeclampsia, a potentially dangerous condition that affects as many as one in 20 pregnant women, looks to be an exception. Preeclampsia is the onset of high blood pressure and protein in the urine 20 weeks or so into pregnancy. Most preeclampsia is mild and doesn't affect the mother or baby. When severe, it can cause seizures, strokes, or miscarriages.

Preeclampsia is "cured" by delivery — once the baby has been born, blood pressure and blood protein levels return to normal. But the episode may have long-lasting effects. Women who develop preeclampsia are twice as likely to have a heart attack or stroke, develop heart failure or peripheral artery disease, or die from heart disease as women with uncomplicated pregnancies, according to McMaster University researchers (American Heart Journal, November 2008). The more severe the preeclampsia, the greater the risk.

Preeclampsia may damage blood vessels or the kidneys, leading to later-life problems. It's also possible that pregnancy is a months-long stress test for the heart and other systems. Preeclampsia, gestational diabetes, or other pregnancy-related complications could be a sign of some underlying problem that eventually leads to heart disease.

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