Breaking the Cycle

Gestational hypertension (high blood pressure) and other complications during pregnancy can raise a woman’s risk of developing heart disease later in her life, an audience was told at a free talk held for Wear Red Canada, February 12.

The annual nationwide event is organized by the Canadian Women’s Heart Health Alliance (CWHHA) to bring awareness to women’s heart health and heart disease across all regions of the country. The CWHHA Manitoba chapter, in cooperation with St. Boniface Hospital and the Heart and Stroke Foundation of Manitoba, hosted the talk for health care professionals and the public in Winnipeg at the Hospital’s Albrechtsen Research Centre.

Dr. Mahwash Saeed, a general cardiologist in St. Boniface Hospital’s Cardiac Sciences Program, was one of three guest speakers. She noted that heart disease and stroke is the number 1 cause of premature death in women in Canada. More than half of women who experience heart attack symptoms have them go unrecognized.

“There used to be this thought that heart disease was mainly for men, and that women were immune to it. But that’s clearly not true – it’s the number 1 killer of women,” said Saeed.

Studies have shown that pregnancy complications can play a role, she said:

There’s an association between having a medically complicated pregnancy and the future risk of heart disease.

“It’s been suggested, therefore, that pregnancy is actually a unique time in a woman’s life – when she’s quite young – to catch her and modify her risk factors before she develops heart disease,” she explained.

These factors include high blood pressure developed during pregnancy, placental abruption or infarction (reduced or interrupted blood flow to the placenta), preeclampsia and HELLP Syndrome, a life-threatening pregnancy disorder related to preeclampsia.

“If you follow the media, Kim Kardashian had placental infarction; she also had preeclampsia. Serena Williams had preeclampsia and Beyoncé had preeclampsia. So, these things are now being talked about more often – especially by women who are quite famous,” said Saeed.

Several published studies have shown the association between developing one of these pregnancy complications and the future risk of heart disease at a premature age. Some women were four to eight times more likely develop heart disease or stroke in their lifetimes.

“Not only are women developing heart disease more frequently, but they’re developing it much earlier than women who have not had one of these disorders,” she said.

“These pregnancy complications emerge early in a woman’s life, and at a time that she’s seeing a physician frequently, so it’s a unique opportunity to change the trajectory of a woman’s life by dealing with this early on,” said Saeed.

Because a history of complicated pregnancy is a risk factor for heart disease, it’s important for nurses and doctors to carefully monitor their patients’ care during and after pregnancy, and to help them take control of disorders like high blood pressure, diabetes and high cholesterol.

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