More Women Are Having Heart Attacks After Giving Birth

By Temma Ehrenfeld @temmaehrenfeld
July 08, 2021

New mothers may miss the signs of an attack or a stroke, and pregnancy in general is a heart-stress test. Be extra careful if you are obese and older than 30.

Heart attacks related to pregnancy are still rare, but it’s important to know if you are at risk.

According to a study, these heart attacks are increasing as women give birth at older ages and are more likely to be obese. They are most likely to happen after you’ve gone home with your new baby.

New mothers may miss the signs of a heart attack or stroke — they have plenty going on! Of the women who had heart attacks in the study, 37 percent experienced it during pregnancy, 12 percent during labor and delivery, and 51 percent postpartum.


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Who is at risk of a pregnancy-related heart attack?

The study looked at 1.3 million childbirth-related hospital records in the United States from 2003-2015. Just over 900 of the women had a heart attack.

You’re at more risk if you’re obese and older than 30, have coronary artery disease, high blood pressure during pregnancy, high cholesterol, blood clotting conditions, or a history of substance abuse or smoking.

If you know you have heart disease, speak up. Laxmi Mehta, MD, a cardiologist at The Ohio State University in Columbus who was not involved in the study, led a team who wrote an American Heart Association scientific statement about special care for pregnant women with heart disease.

"If you have an underlying cardiac history, you really need to have a cardio-obstetrics team — a cardiologist, an obstetrician, an anesthesiologist, the right team of players to help carry you through to the end," he told American Heart Association News.

No one is too young or healthy to have a heart attack, but almost half of all Americans have at least one of the three major risk factors for heart disease: high blood pressure, high cholesterol, and a history of smoking.

Women can develop high blood pressure as a side effect of birth control pills or during pregnancy. Blood pressure typically falls during the first two trimesters and returns to pre-pregnancy levels in the third. Sometimes this pattern can get derailed.

The number of women in the United States who develop preeclampsia, high blood pressure during pregnancy, has risen dramatically in the past 20 years. Absolutely tell your doctor if your blood pressure goes up, or you run into swelling in your face or hands, headaches, too much weight gain, blurry vision, trouble urinating, or abdominal pain — these are symptoms of preeclampsia.

What are the symptoms of heart attacks in women?

We tend to imagine a heart attack patient as an older man, but heart disease is also the leading cause of death for U.S. women. You also don’t have to be in your late 50s or older, as many assume. Heart attacks have risen among women ages 35 to 54, according to a 20-year study published in 2018 that reviewed more than 28,000 hospitalizations for heart attacks in four U.S. cities.

Chest pain or discomfort is the main symptom of most heart attacks. But women are more likely than men to feel the discomfort elsewhere, in the back, neck, jaw, arms, or stomach. You might feel short of breath, or lightheaded, break into a cold sweat, feel suddenly exhausted, or become nauseated and vomit.

What can you do to prevent an early heart attack?

Good health habits could prevent as much as 80 percent of heart disease, including strokes as well as heart attacks. To protect yourself:

  • Maintain a healthy weight.
  • Avoid processed foods and added sugar.
  • Exercise at least 150 minutes per week.
  • Move through the day, getting up from your chair frequently if you do office work.
  • Stick to one alcoholic drink a day, and none during pregnancy.
  • Don’t underestimate the effect of stress.
  • Get a yearly exam to keep track of your blood sugar, blood pressure, and other risk factors.

Johns Hopkins Hospital in Baltimore suggests these tips:

  • Snack on nuts, especially walnuts, which have more omega-3 fatty acids than other nuts.
  • Sneak in a 10- to 15-minute burst of activity whenever you can.
  • Go to bed just a little earlier. Lack of sleep increases heart risk, even if you’re a young slim non-smoker.


YOU MIGHT ALSO LIKE: Our Pregnancy and Childbirth section


July 08, 2021

Reviewed By:  

Janet O’Dell, RN