You probably know some of the major risk factors for heart disease: unhealthy eating habits, obesity, inactivity, tobacco use, chronic high stress. But most people don’t know that preeclampsia during pregnancy is also a risk factor for developing heart disease later in life. If you, like me, had preeclampsia, you may have a four-fold increase in heart failure risk, and double the risk of future coronary heart disease, stroke, and death related to heart disease (1). Keep reading to learn more about preeclampsia and heart disease risk.
What is preeclampsia
Preeclampsia is a disorder that only affects pregnant women. It usually occurs after 20 weeks of pregnancy, and is characterized by hypertension, and damage to another organ system; usually the liver or kidneys. This is the reason your doctor checks your blood pressure and urine proteins at every prenatal check-up.
Blood pressure may rise suddenly, or slowly, but is accompanied by proteins in the urine. Some other signs of preeclampsia are severe headaches, vision changes, nausea or vomiting, swelling (especially in face and hands), and shortness of breath (2). You may notice these are also common in a normal pregnancy, so that’s why it’s so important to see your doctor regularly during pregnancy!
Women have been dealing with preeclampsia forever. Research into my family tree revealed my own great-grandmother died in childbirth, along with her baby, of eclampsia (the progressed form of preeclampsia) in 1927. Thankfully, most women who develop preeclampsia (and their babies) now survive just fine with treatment.
If left untreated, it can result in the death of either, or both, mother and baby. Treatment is usually delivery, along with some medications to prevent seizures. Symptoms of preeclampsia usually resolve after delivery. This may involve an induction or cesarean delivery, depending on the situation. For me, we were right at our due date, so we went the induction route. When labor stopped progressing, we needed a cesarean delivery.
Sometimes, if the baby’s gestational age isn’t far enough along, preeclampsia may be managed with medication. But sometimes this cannot be taken into account, and delivery may need to occur right away. It’s a scary thing for everyone!
What causes preeclampsia
It’s difficult to predict who might develop preeclampsia, because it’s not clear as to what the exact cause is. Most experts think preeclampsia is a result of the placenta not anchoring itself to the wall of the uterus as deeply as it should in the first trimester (3). This results in abnormal blood vessel formation, and reduced blood flow through the placenta.
While experts don’t know the exact cause of this abnormal placental anchoring, it seems blood vessel damage, immune system problems, medical conditions (like diabetes or hypertension), or genetics of the mother or father may play a role.
The link between preeclampsia and heart disease
Research into the link between preeclampsia and heart disease really started to heat up around 2010. Since then, we’ve learned so much about this important risk factor.
Many women are simply not aware that having preeclampsia increases your risk of developing heart conditions down the line. And if you have had preeclampsia in more than one pregnancy, your heart disease risk is even higher (4).
One literature review that included seven studies and almost 5 million participants identified preeclampsia as a strong marker of future cardiovascular disease, and significantly increased the risk for hypertension, ischemic heart disease, and stroke later in life (5).
In another review, which included 3.5 million women and 48 studies, a threefold increase in the risk for developing chronic hypertension was seen (6). The authors of that same review noted women who have had preeclampsia had at least double the risk of future cardiovascular disease and related death, and for both fatal and non-fatal stroke. The increase in risk held true whether or not the women have pre-existing cardiovascular risk factors outside of preeclampsia.
Still another review of studies that included over 6 million women, found a four-fold increase in heart failure risk in those with a history of preeclampsia (1). That review corroborated previous findings of a twofold increase in risk of stroke (both fatal and not), as well as finding a twofold increase in risk of coronary heart disease related to preeclampsia.
How Can I Decrease My Risk of Heart Disease if I’ve had Preeclampsia?
First things first when it comes to preventing heart disease: make sure you see your doctor regularly for check ups. This will help you stay on top of your health, and catch any problems early.
Since your risk is higher, take steps to keep your blood pressure and cholesterol in check. Here are some ways you can do that:
- Consume 1500mg or less of sodium daily. Try some of our low sodium recipes. You may also be interested in these articles: How to Cook with Less Salt, and Sodium and Blood Pressure
- Increase your fiber intake to at least 25 grams per day. Try some of these recipes or read more about Fiber and Heart Health.
- Monitor your saturated fat intake, and keep it under 10% of your calories (that’s about 22 grams for a 2000 calorie diet). Try some of these low fat recipes or healthy fats recipes.
- Increase your fruit and vegetable intake - up to 10 servings per day has benefits!
- If you drink alcohol, consume no more than one drink per day (5 oz wine, 1 oz liquor, or 12 oz beer)
- If you use tobacco, quit
- Exercise regularly
While there are many other steps you can take, these are some of the most impactful. If you are concerned about your heart disease risk, make sure to talk to your doctor for more individualized advice. The recipes on Being Nutritious are all specially designed to be heart healthy, and help you manage the nutritional component of heart disease risk. Have a look around! This page can help you sort our recipes by dietary need.