Pregnancy and the heart

Waiting for a baby. Close-up of pregnant woman touching her belly while sitting in lotus positionHeart disease is not always a disease of the elderly. According to the American Heart Association, there are over 15,000 deaths due to heart disease annually in the U.S. in young women under the age of 55.

While most young patients have at least one risk factor for a cardiac event, many women underestimate their cardiovascular risk. These risk factors may come from family history, lifestyle, and unique to female patients: conditions that developed during pregnancy.

Major changes happen to the body during pregnancy to which the heart and vascular system must adapt. We now know that pregnant women can develop conditions which may signal a risk for heart problems in the future.

Conditions that have been linked to future heart risk include:

  • Gestational hypertension
  • Gestational diabetes
  • Preeclampsia
  • Spontaneous pregnancy loss
  • Preterm birth

The good news is there is plenty you can do to minimize your heart risk before, during, and after pregnancy. Here are a few tips to note when you’re trying to get pregnant and to ensure you have a heart-healthy pregnancy.

Eat heart-healthy

During pregnancy it’s more important than ever to have a balanced, heart-healthy diet. In particular, avoid excess salt and minimize your caffeine intake. Consider using OHSU’s My Pregnancy Plate as a guide on optimal nutrition during pregnancy.

Maintain a healthy weight

Weight gain is normal during pregnancy and the healthy amount can vary person to person. Talk to your OB at the beginning of your pregnancy to determine the optimal weight gain for you.

Exercise

As is the case outside of pregnancy, regular exercise is vital to cardiovascular health. Moderate exercise is typically okay for most pregnant women but discuss the specifics with your doctor.

Talk to your doctor

Make sure to discuss any medications you are taking with your doctor prior to pregnancy. If you have an existing heart condition, talk to your cardiologist before getting pregnant. Many women with repaired congenital heart disease can have a safe pregnancy, but the risk depends upon the person. Body changes can cause an increase in symptoms, even for women without preexisting problems, so it’s important for patients with a heart history to be monitored by a cardiologist throughout pregnancy.

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Dr. AAbigail, Khan_15 (CAR)bigail Khan is a cardiologist at the OHSU Knight Cardiovascular Institute focused on caring for adults with congenital heart disease and women who are pregnant or contemplating pregnancy and have existing heart problems. Her role as a cardiologist guiding these young women is an important one given that risk factors for heart disease are rising for women under 45, and pregnant women may have additional cardiovascular concerns.

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