PREGNANCY AND CHILDBIRTH

Pregnant Women and the Risk of Heart Disease

By Katharine Paljug  @kpaljug
 | 
January 20, 2017

Heart disease is the number one cause of maternal death in the United Kingdom.

If you are currently pregnant, you are likely experiencing a number of uncomfortable physical symptoms. 

You may feel discomfort in your chest and ribcage as your uterus expands. You might feel short of breath as your lungs become more compressed. You probably feel fatigued, especially if you are in your third trimester or have other children to care for. 

These might be normal pregnancy symptoms that will go away gradually after you give birth. But they could also be a sign that something more dangerous is happening in your body. 

 

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A recent report, commissioned by the United Kingdom’s Healthcare Quality Improvement Partnership, found that women who are pregnant or have recently given birth may be at an increased risk for death due to heart disease.

The report, which is released yearly and examines the quality of maternal care in the UK, found that between the years 2012 and 2014, 8.5 women out of every 100,000 died during pregnancy or up to six weeks after the end of their pregnancy. The researchers who compiled the report noted that 2 out of those 8.5 women died from heart disease, making it the number one cause of maternal death in the United Kingdom.

Women who are known to have heart conditions are especially high risk, the report emphasizes, and should be under the care of a cardiovascular specialist throughout their pregnancy. But any pregnant woman can develop heart disease as her body undergoes the significant changes and stresses that pregnancy and birth bring. 

Heart disease is not a condition that many people associate with pregnancy, which makes it even more dangerous. Both pregnant women and their doctors can miss signs of cardiovascular distress, mistaking them for one of pregnancy’s many discomforts. This increases the likelihood that untreated symptoms could become fatal. 

 

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The report also notes that the symptoms of heart disease may look different in pregnant women than those commonly expected during a heart attack or cardiovascular incident. 

Some women may experience the severe chest pain, spreading to the left arm or back, that is typically associated with heart disease. But one of the most common signs of cardiovascular distress in pregnant women is extreme, persistent breathlessness while lying flat or reclined. The researchers who compiled the report stress that this is not normal and should be immediately brought to your doctor’s attention.

Others symptoms of heart disease in pregnancy include neck or jaw pain, fluttering in your chest, persistent fatigue, heartburn, nausea and vomiting, or sudden swelling in your legs and abdomen. Because these symptoms are similar to common pregnancy discomforts, many women do not recognize them as signs of heart disease and do not seek medical help.

The United Kingdom is not the only country where doctors are concerned about the risk heart disease poses for pregnant women. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, cardiovascular disease is the number one cause of maternal death in the United States as well, accounting for 15.5 percent of pregnancy-related deaths from 2011 to 2013 (the most recent data available). 

Risk factors for heart disease include diabetes, being overweight or obese, and having a poor diet or low level of physical activity. If you are pregnant and have one or more of these risk factors, or a preexisting heart condition, talk with your doctor about seeing a specialist to care for you and monitor your heart health throughout your pregnancy. 

 

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Updated:  

January 20, 2017

Reviewed By:  

Janet O’Dell, RN