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Risk Factors for Pregnancy-Related Heart Problems

Each year, about 700 women in the U.S. die from pregnancy-related problems, and more than 50,000 women have life-threatening pregnancy complications. Heart and blood vessel conditions, such as coronary heart disease, high blood pressure, stroke, and cardiomyopathy, are leading causes. The good news is that most of these problems are preventable, meaning you can take steps before, during, and after pregnancy to help your heart health.

Pregnancy-related heart problems can happen to any woman, but your risk may be higher if you:

  • Are 40 or older
  • Are African American, American Indian, or Alaska Native
  • Are overweight or have obesity
  • Have heart problems
  • Get little physical activity
  • Use opioids or other illegal drugs
  • Drink alcohol
  • Smoke
  • Have existing heart disease, such as congenital heart disease or heart valve disease
  • Have an existing health condition, such as diabetes, high blood pressure, blood clotting disorders, sleep apnea, anemia, or polycystic ovary syndrome (PCOS)

In the United States, high blood pressure happens in 1 in every 12 to 17 pregnancies in women ages 20 to 44. Read more about high blood pressure in pregnancy.

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What You Can Do

If you are pregnant or planning on becoming pregnant, you can take these steps to help manage your heart health:

  • Understand your risk. Know your body mass index (BMI), blood pressure, cholesterol, and blood sugar levels. The Heart Truth® has information and tools to help you take action toward better heart health.
  • Talk to your doctor about your risk and how it affects this pregnancy and your risk in future pregnancies. Tell your doctor about any medicines you are taking and keep all your medical appointments during and after pregnancy.
  • If you’re not yet pregnant, develop heart-healthy habits now to set yourself up for a healthy pregnancy. This includes choosing healthy foods, getting regular physical activity, aiming for a healthy weight, managing stress, getting enough good quality sleep, and quitting smoking if you smoke.
  • Watch for warning signs of a problem during and after pregnancy. Some warning signs of a heart problem during or after pregnancy are a worsening headache, overwhelming tiredness, dizziness, trouble breathing, chest or belly pain, swelling, or nausea. If you feel like something is wrong, call your doctor or seek medical care right away. Learn about other warning signs from the CDC.

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Protecting Your Heart After Your Child Is Born

Heart and blood vessel problems in pregnancy can affect your heart health years and even decades after your child is born. For example, women who have gestational diabetes or any of the pregnancy-related high blood pressure disorders, such as gestational high blood pressure or preeclampsia, have a higher long-term risk of heart and blood vessel problems.

The first year after giving birth is an especially important time to work with your doctor. Some serious problems due to pregnancy can occur up to a year after delivery. Your doctor can also give you advice on developing heart-healthy habits for life.

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Questions for Your Doctor

Seeing the doctor regularly before and during your pregnancy is important for managing your risks. By taking regular height, weight, and blood pressure measurements, for example, your doctor can see how your body is adjusting to pregnancy’s changes. Take the opportunity to tell your doctor about any changes or symptoms you have noticed. Here are questions to discuss with your doctor.

  • Are my blood pressure numbers normal?
  • Am I at risk for developing problems during or after pregnancy?
  • If I am at risk, will this affect my prenatal care or birthing plan?
  • What can I do to lower my risks for problems during pregnancy?
  • Is there a test I can have to rule out a serious problem?
  • At what point should I consider going to the emergency room or calling 9-1-1?
  • If I have health problems during pregnancy, will that affect my baby, and how does that affect my heart health in the future?
  • What should I be aware of after delivery?
  • Will any heart health problems during this pregnancy affect future pregnancies?

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A doctor with her hands on a pregnant woman's belly, both wearing masks

 

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NHLBI Research on Maternal Health

Researchers supported by the NHLBI have raised awareness about the dangers of heart and blood vessel problems in pregnancy and their long-term impact on women’s health. We also regularly bring together experts to help us set priorities for research on topics such as preeclampsia, lack of sleep as a risk factor for disease, and disparities in women’s health during pregnancy. In particular, eliminating racial disparities in pregnancy-related illness and death is a priority. Our research is also exploring ways that heart and blood vessel problems can be prevented and treated in the future.

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Pregnant woman with a mask on holding her belly and looking down at it

 

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Related Resources

Learn more about pregnancy and heart health: