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Pregnancy: A Stress Test for Your Heart

If you develop certain complications during pregnancy, you might be at greater risk of developing heart disease later in life.

Among these conditions are gestational diabetes and gestational hypertension, which occur in mothers who previously have not been diagnosed with diabetes or hypertension (high blood pressure.)

Both conditions tend to fade away after the baby is born, but not before offering a sort of early warning for future heart troubles.

Pregnancy Stress Test

In some ways, pregnancy is the ultimate challenge for a woman’s body, serving as one of the most natural, unintended cardiac stress tests that you will experience in your life.

During that time, your heart will work overtime to cope with hormonal and physical changes as your blood volume increases up to 50 percent. Your heart rate will climb to accommodate the extra work, which will intensify during labor and delivery.

Your body is designed to handle these stresses. But if you have any underlying cardiac risk factors, they can be significantly amplified during this time. Essentially, this offers a glimpse into your heart’s future and could even cause heart problems during your pregnancy.

Pregnancy Complications

In 2021, the American Heart Association listed a group of pregnancy-related complications that could lead to heart trouble later. This was part of an effort to encourage new mothers to keep their own health in mind after delivering their babies.

Among the complications:

  • Gestational hypertension: Gestational hypertension occurs with a reading at or above 140/90 after 20 weeks of pregnancy in a woman who has not been previously diagnosed with high blood pressure. The condition increases the risk of heart disease by 67 percent and risk of stroke by 83 percent.
  • Gestational diabetes: This condition occurs in 7 percent to 9 percent of pregnancies, usually around the 24th week. It happens when your body fails to produce enough insulin to control your blood sugar. It increases your risk of heart disease by 68 percent. It also significantly increases your risk for Type 2 diabetes, which is a risk factor for heart disease.
  • Preeclampsia: This complication occurs when you develop high blood pressure during pregnancy, along with signs of damage to an organ, such as your kidney or liver. This dangerous condition, which can double your risk for later heart disease, is marked by protein in your urine, swollen legs, feet, hands and fingers after the 20th week.

Follow-up Care Critical

After you go home with your baby, it’s easy to forget about your own health, as everything in your world focuses on this new life. But if you have experienced any of these complications, it’s important that you follow up with your primary care doctor – and a cardiologist if needed.

The sooner you start working with a doctor, the better your chances are at reducing your increased risks. One way to approach this is to quickly schedule a six-week follow-up visit with your primary care doctor in addition to your postpartum visit with your obstetrician. Get that appointment scheduled after giving birth.

It’s particularly challenging with younger mothers, who tend to downplay their own health risks. Often they may not even have a primary care doctor. But once you have your first baby, your body changes and your risk profile changes.

And if you know that your risk for heart disease has increased, it’s also important to take a look at things like diet and lifestyle modification.

  • Diet: Focus on fruits and vegetables, whole grains and healthier sources of protein. This could be nuts, fish, seafood and lean meat or poultry. Avoid processed foods, eat less sugar and avoid salty foods. Also limit or avoid drinking alcohol.
  • Lifestyle: One of the most important things you can do is be active. Try to spend at least 150 minutes a week doing some type of moderate physical activity. It could be swimming, biking or even brisk walks. You don’t have to run a marathon, but you do need to get your heart rate up. A good strategy is to find a friend or family member to join you. This can help you both stick with it.

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