A research study published this month in Circulation, an American Heart Association Journal, adds to this scientific evidence. In this trial of more than 1,110 women, the researchers reported those who had a history of gestational diabetes had a two-fold higher risk of coronary artery calcium in midlife.
Coronary artery calcium, which is calcified plaque buildup in the coronary arteries, is a marker of heart disease and can potentially lead to a heart attack. Another study recently published in Circulation showed coronary artery calcifications were more prevalent in women after having preeclampsia than after having normal blood pressure during pregnancy (20% versus 13%).
The excitement and joy a newborn brings makes it easy to forget the not-so-exciting parts of pregnancy and delivery – like morning sickness, fatigue, pain and even health complications. But one of these things should be remembered and acted upon for your best health: pregnancy complications, as they can increase your risk for heart disease.
“Pregnancy can be a natural stress test that identifies your risk,” says Dr. Patrycja Galazka, cardiologist at Aurora Health Care in Milwaukee, WI, whose clinical interest includes women’s heart disease. “For example, if you develop preeclampsia or gestational diabetes during pregnancy, clinical studies show you may have a 1.8 to 4-fold higher risk of having cardiovascular disease in the future.”
Other pregnancy complications are also known to increase your risk of heart disease down the road. These include preterm delivery, low birth weight and even miscarriage.
“While the conditions may disappear after pregnancy and be forgotten, it’s important for all women to know they can put you at a higher risk of developing heart disease later in life,” says Dr. Galazka. “Be sure to discuss with your doctor any pregnancy complications you’ve experienced and what you can do to protect your heart. About 80% of heart disease can be prevented and it’s never too early or too late to start doing things for your heart health now and for the future.”
Dr. Galazka recommends making these lifestyle changes:
- Follow a heart healthy diet with emphasis on fruits, vegetables, nuts, legumes, fish and whole grains
- Monitor your weight and maintain a BMI of less than 25
- Maintain a blood pressure of less than 130/80 mmHg
- Know your cholesterol and treat if appropriate
- Quit smoking
- Moderately exercise more than 150 minutes per week or vigorously more than 75 minutes per week
- Be social and find ways to destress and relax
No matter your age or pregnancy experience, it’s helpful to know the facts about women and heart disease (to link to myths/facts story once published) and understand your sex-specific risks. Find out your overall risks with this heart health quiz.