Jennifer Stuart, ScD, has spent a good part of her research career trying to untangle the relationships between pregnancy complications and cardiovascular disease (CVD), the leading cause of death among women in the United States. A reproductive and cardiovascular epidemiologist in the Division of Women’s Health at Brigham and Women’s Hospital and an instructor of medicine at Harvard Medical School, Stuart has had a clear end goal: to find ways to delay or even prevent CVD from developing in women with a history of pregnancy complications. And on that front, she’s been making some noteworthy progress.
In 2018, in an NHLBI-funded study, she found that women who developed high blood pressure during pregnancy (a condition known as preeclampsia) had higher rates of CVD risk factors, such as type 2 diabetes and elevated cholesterol, in the years after pregnancy and continuing for decades, compared to women whose blood pressure was normal during their pregnancy. More recently, her research has shown that these women have a 63% higher rate of heart disease and stroke. Taken together, the studies suggest that screening for high blood pressure, diabetes, elevated cholesterol, and overweight or obesity after pregnancy may be especially helpful in preventing CVD among women with a history of preeclampsia.
Today, Stuart said, the condition occurs in about 8% of pregnancies. “I may spend most of my time looking at data,” she noted, “but, for me, these are more than just numbers – they represent real women, and we need to find solutions to empower and equip them to reduce their cardiovascular risk.”
Stuart is currently studying a possible link between preeclampsia and posttraumatic stress syndrome (PTSD), which itself is a risk factor for heart disease. If research results continue to support this link, Stuart hopes to find ways to deliver mental health support for women who experience preeclampsia-related complications. She credits her accomplishments in part to having strong mentors and a supportive academic research culture that is “motivated by the same driving force—to improve the health of women.”
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