New research suggests that women who experience pregnancy-related complications may have a greater risk of dying from heart disease later in life.

The risk is particularly high for those who have had more than one complication during pregnancy, according to a study published online last Sept. 21 in the American Heart Association’s (AHA) journal Circulation.

According to the AHA, heart disease is the top killer of American women.

“We discovered there were some combinations of pregnancy complications that were associated with as much as a sevenfold increase in the risk of cardiovascular disease death,” said senior study author Barbara Cohn, director of child health and development studies at the Public Health Institute in Berkeley, California.

A heart disease risk before age 60 for instance, is doubled or tripled in women who developed pre-eclampsia, a condition involving high blood pressure and high protein levels in the urine. The risk increased six times if the woman developed pre-eclampsia on top of high blood pressure she already had earlier in the pregnancy.

Subjects who had high sugar levels in their urine during pregnancy were also about four times more likely to die from heart disease compared with those who did not have high sugar levels in their urine while they were pregnant.

The researchers found, too, that women who saw a decline in their pregnancy-phase hemoglobin levels, a measure of how red blood cells can carry oxygen through the body, were about twice as likely to die from heart disease later in life compared with those who did not experience the decline.

Additional alarming combinations found in the study are seven times higher risk of dying from heart disease for mothers with pre-existing high blood pressure and a preterm delivery; a five times higher risk for those with pre-existing high blood pressure and delivery of a low-birth-weight child and a five times greater risk for those with high blood pressure incited by pregnancy and a preterm delivery.

The study covered 15,500 women in the metropolitan area of Oakland, California, who had their pregnancy from 1959 to 1967. As of 2011, 368 subjects had died of heart disease; the average age was 26 at the beginning of the study and 66 in 2011.

“The idea here is not necessarily that these events of pregnancy cause women to die of cardiovascular disease. The idea is that, just like a person’s cholesterol level and blood pressure are considered risk factors, so should those pregnancy complications,” Cohn explained, urging women who experience any of these complications while pregnant to relay the information to their physicians later on.

In turn, doctors should ask about and monitor these health concerns more closely, as they “might be able to save lives” by inquiring about women’s pregnancy history.

Photo: Jerry Lai | Flickr

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