Preeclampsia is a condition that results in high blood pressure and leaky blood vessels during pregnancy. It has been estimated that 5% of pregnant women in Illinois will be affected by preeclampsia and that about 300,000 woman per year are affected in the United States. A growing body of evidence suggests that women who develop preeclampsia double their risk of having a heart attack or stroke.
In most cases the symptoms of preeclampsia disappear soon after delivery, so most women never have to think about it again. But in light of recent research findings women with a history of preeclampsia might need to think about it after all.
One study found that these women had a higher propensity for forming blood clots. Research from 2007 found more hardening of the arteries of women who experienced abnormal high blood pressure in pregnancy. Other studies have found that women with preeclampsia had more heart attacks, strokes and blood clots later in life when compared to other women who did not have preeclampsia.
The current thinking is that preeclampsia does not by itself increase the risk of heart disease, but instead unmasks a woman’s likelihood of being afflicted by heart problems later in life. “The preeclampsia pregnancy is a kind of stress test for the heart,” says Dr. Graeme N. Smith, a professor of obstetrics and gynecology at Queen’s University in Ontario and an author of a study on preeclampsia and heart disease.
The risk is small, but noteworthy. For women in their mid-40s with a history of normal pregnancy only 4 out of 100 would be expected to have a heart attack or stroke ten years later. The figure doubles for women who had preeclampsia during one pregnancy to 8 out of 100 and rises even more for those women who had preeclampsia for more than one pregnancy.
Doctors have tried to put a positive spin on these recent findings by stating that preeclampsia may be a useful sentinel of heart disease, which is a leading killer of women in America. According to Dr. Smith, “The earlier you diagnose them, the more likely you are to prevent cardiovascular disease.”
What this means for women who experienced preeclampsia during even one pregnancy is that they should advise their future physicians of this as it might aid in diagnosing or preventing stroke or heart disease.