Heart disease is the top cause of pregnancy-related deaths in California, one-third of which could be prevented.
And in all likelihood, those numbers reflect what’s happening throughout the United States, according to research presented at the American Heart Association’s (AHA) Scientific Sessions 2013.
“Women who give birth are usually young and in good health,” said Afshan B. Hameed, MD, of the University of California, Irvine, the study’s lead researcher. “So heart disease shouldn’t be the leading cause of pregnancy-related deaths, but it is.”
About the study
The study, which was funded by the California Department of Public Health, focused on statistics from 2002 to 2005. During that time, there were 2.1 million babies born in the state, and a total of 732 women died during pregnancy or within one year of giving birth.
Researchers found that 209 of those deaths were related to the women’s pregnancy.
An analysis of the women’s medical records found that:
- 52, or about 1 of every 4 women, died from some form of cardiovascular disease.
- 33, or two-thirds, of the cardiovascular deaths were caused by cardiomyopathy. (Cardiomyopathy occurs when the heart becomes enlarged or thick and gets weak, according to the AHA.)
- Only 6 percent of the women had been diagnosed with a heart condition before becoming pregnant.
- Nearly 1 of every 4 women who died of cardiac problems was diagnosed with high blood pressure during pregnancy.
Also of note: Compared to women who died of other causes, those whose deaths were related to cardiovascular disease were most likely to be African American or obese or to have documented substance abuse during pregnancy, the researchers found.
One-third of the women who died either didn’t seek medical help at all or delayed getting help until it was too late, researchers noted.
In many other cases, heart symptoms such as fatigue or shortness of breath were assumed to be from the stress of pregnancy or of having a newborn at home, said Dr. Hameed.
“These symptoms should be taken seriously,” Dr. Hameed said.
|The take-home message|
|The findings emphasize the importance of seeking help for symptoms like fatigue; difficulty breathing (especially with exertion); chest pain; dizziness; or swelling in the feet, ankles, legs, abdomen or neck veins.
Kim Vernon, MD, an AHA spokesperson and member of the American College of Obstetrics and Gynecology, said the study also pointed out the importance of getting prenatal care. “You need to try to start the pregnancy as healthy as possible,” she said.
Women who are pregnant or plan to become pregnant should be careful to keep a healthy weight, get appropriate screening tests, review their risk for heart disease with their doctor, and avoid using drugs or alcohol.