Pregnancy and Heart Health

By: Cyndy McGrath

The newest patients at Magee-Womens Hospital of UPMC wear ‘Go Red’ hats in support of the American Heart Association’s National Wear Red Day

While some may view heart disease as an issue for women in mid-life or older, experts say the first true test of heart health may come decades earlier.

“Many experts have begun to view pregnancy as an early ‘stress test’ for a woman’s heart,” says Janet Catov, Ph.D., an associate professor of Obstetrics and Gynecology at the University of Pittsburgh School of Medicine.

During pregnancy, a woman’s blood volume increases by as much as 40 percent, since the baby is fed by the mother’s blood supply. That increase forces the heart to work harder and beat slightly faster. Triglycerides, a form of fat in our bloodstreams, can triple during a normal pregnancy, and cholesterol levels also go up.

Dr. Catov says there is a lot of research that suggests how well a woman is able to accommodate those changes during pregnancy may be a marker of her future risk for heart disease.

Pregnancy complications may also be an indicator for heart disease, down the road.

“Evidence shows that women with preeclampsia, a sudden increase in blood pressure and increase in protein in the urine, are twice as likely to have hypertension ten years after pregnancy,” says Dr.Catov, who also studies pregnancy complications and heart disease in women.  “This is why good prenatal care is crucial.  A woman’s Ob/Gyn will be attuned to the changes that are occurring, and will look for the conditions that could signal trouble later on.”

Dr.Catov also recommends that expectant moms pay attention to weight gain during pregnancy.

“There’s a lot of focus right now on the recommended amount of weight that women gain during pregnancy, and the importance of staying within those guidelines,” says Dr.Catov. “Excess weight becomes so hard to lose afterward, and can put additional strain on the heart.”