Increased heart attack risk after pre-eclampsia lasts decades

New study involved over 1.1 million women

Deborah Condon

January 26, 2023

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  • Women who develop pre-eclampsia face a higher risk of suffering a heart attack or stroke up to 20 years after giving birth, the results of a new study indicate.

    Pre-eclampsia usually develops in women who are more than 20 weeks pregnant or who recently delivered a baby. The medical signs are high blood pressure and protein in the urine, however other symptoms can include severe headache and nausea.

    If left untreated, the condition can lead to serious and even life-threatening complications for both mother and baby.

    While it is already known that pre-eclampsia can increase the risk of cardiovascular disease (CVD) later in life, this was the first study to assess how soon after pregnancy heart attacks and strokes occur.

    Danish researchers used national registers to identify all pregnant women in Denmark between 1978 and 2017, which amounted to over 1.1 million women. These were divided into groups depending on whether they had developed pre-eclampsia or not.

    None of the participants had CVD at the start of the study and they were monitored for up to 30 years.

    “This allowed us to evaluate exactly when cardiovascular disease occurs in women with and without pre-eclampsia, and to estimate risk in different age groups and at various durations of follow-up,” explained the study’s author, Dr Sara Hallum, of the University of Copenhagen.

    The study found that overall, women with pre-eclampsia were four times more likely to suffer a heart attack and three times more likely to suffer a stroke within 10 years of delivery compared to those without pre-eclampsia.

    Furthermore, the risk of heart attack or stroke was still twice as high in the pre-eclampsia group more than 20 years after giving birth compared to those without pre-eclampsia.

    When the researchers examined the risk of CVD according to age, they found that the rate of heart attacks was five times higher in women aged 30-39 years with a history of pre-eclampsia compared to those without the condition. In the same group, the rate of stroke was three times higher.

    The researchers noted that the raised likelihood of CVD in women with a history of pre-eclampsia persisted throughout adulthood, with women over 50 years of age still facing double the risk compared to women with no history of the condition.

    “The high risk of CVD after pre-eclampsia manifests at young ages and early after delivery. This indicates that interventions to prevent heart attacks and strokes in affected women cannot wait until middle age.

    “Women are often in contact with the healthcare system during and immediately after pregnancy, providing a window of opportunity to identify those at increased risk of CVD,” Dr Hallum said.

    This study is published in the European Journal of Preventive Cardiology and can be viewed here.

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