When you’re pregnant, there’s a lot on your mind, but you probably aren’t giving much thought to your heart health. New research suggests that you should—your life could depend on it.
According to the most recent statistics available, the proportion of women in the US who had heart attacks during pregnancy, delivery or the postpartum period (the six weeks after delivery) rose nearly 25% between 2002 and 2014—from seven out of every 100,000 pregnancies to 9.5 out of every 100,000 pregnancies.
If 9.5 out of 100,000 doesn’t sound like something to be concerned about, keep in mind that all of the women having these heart attacks are young or relatively young (of childbearing age).
Within this group, older pregnant women are more likely to have heart attacks than younger ones. Pregnant women age 35 to 39 are five times more likely to have heart attacks than pregnant women in their 20s, and women in their early 40s have 10 times that risk. But few people think of their early 40s—or younger—as heart attack age. This is especially concerning as growing numbers of American women are choosing to delay motherhood.
Heart attack is not the only pregnancy heart threat. A separate study found that the number of pregnant women experiencing heart failure—when the heart grows weaker and is unable to pump enough blood and oxygen—is rising, too, by about 4.9% a year during pregnancy and 7.1% in the six weeks following birth.
What’s happening: Pregnancy on its own does stress your heart. Your heart pumps more blood each minute to feed the baby, and your heart rate, in turn, increases. And while you might think of heart disease as a problem for women well after childbearing years, you could have heart disease risk factors much earlier in life. Many of the patients in the heart attack study had high blood pressure, high cholesterol and/or diabetes (high blood sugar), each of which is considered a major risk factor for heart attack. High blood pressure is also one of the risk factors for heart failure.
Use these study findings to get proactive about your heart health when planning to become pregnant and while pregnant…
See your doctor before you start trying. All women, especially those in their 30s and up, who want to become pregnant should get an all-clear from their doctors first. Simple screening tests can identify high blood cholesterol, high blood sugar and high blood pressure.
Work with your doctor on a plan to reduce your risks. This plan could include well-known lifestyle changes that you might have been procrastinating about, such as eating healthier, losing weight, exercising and, of course, quitting if you smoke. But medication may be needed if lifestyle changes alone don’t get your numbers down. While it’s best for you and the baby if you’re at a healthy weight and in otherwise good health before you become pregnant, if you’re already pregnant, create a plan for a safe amount of weight gain as well as controlling health issues.
Know the symptoms of a heart attack. For women in particular, it’s not always the typical chest pain depicted in the movies. And yet some of the other symptoms, such as nausea and shortness of breath, are also common pregnancy symptoms.
Call 911 immediately if you think you could be having a heart attack. Many women don’t seek attention as quickly as they should because the possibility of having a heart attack isn’t on their radar, but it should be.
Heart attacks and other heart issues during pregnancy are rare, but they’re also happening more often than they used to. The quicker you get treated, the better the outlook for you and your baby.