When you have peripheral artery disease (PAD), arteries that carry blood to your arms and legs harden and narrow. This usually happens due to a buildup of plaque, made up of fats and other substances, in your arteries.
Because PAD is far more common in people over 50, women don't usually have this condition while pregnant. In fact, the PAD treatment guidelines from the American College of Cardiology and American Heart Association don't take pregnancy into account.
However, there is a link between pregnancy and PAD. If you had certain complications during a pregnancy, you're at higher risk of getting PAD later on.
What's the Link Between PAD and Pregnancy?
One study compared women under 50 who had certain cardiovascular diseases, including PAD, to healthy women of similar ages and body mass indexes (BMIs). It found that those who'd had pregnancy complications (like smaller babies, pregnancy-induced high blood pressure, or preeclampsia) were at higher risk for these conditions.
Other research found that high blood pressure during pregnancy independently raises your risk of PAD. This risk continues for decades after you give birth.
These trends didn’t change even when researchers accounted for other risk factors, like diabetes, high blood pressure, and smoking.
If you had preeclampsia, high blood pressure, or another complication during one or more pregnancies, discuss your risk of PAD with your doctor.
If you’re currently pregnant and have PAD, talk to your doctor about any risks the condition may pose for you and your baby. If you're pregnant and someone in your family has a history of PAD, let your doctor know.
Pregnancy puts extra strain on your heart and vascular system as more blood circulates to support your growing uterus and baby. So it's especially important to look after your cardiovascular health when you're expecting.
What's the Link Between Birth Control and PAD?
In addition to pregnancy complications, certain other things in a woman's health history may affect her risk for PAD.
Women who've used birth control pills may be at higher risk for PAD. One study found that women who used any type of oral birth control medication between the ages of 18-49 had a higher risk of PAD than women who didn't take "the pill."
What's the Link Between Hormone-Replacement Therapy and PAD?
In hormone replacement therapy, you take medication containing the hormone estrogen after your body quits making it due to menopause. It's used to treat menopause symptoms like hot flashes and vaginal discomfort as well as to prevent osteoporosis.
In one study, which looked at 2,196 women ages 55–80, researchers found the risk of PAD went down by 52% in women who used HRT for over a year. Other research showed that women without PAD were more likely to have used HRT.
However some larger studies didn’t find such benefits from HRT. In fact, one found more peripheral vascular problems in women who had used HRT. Because of this, doctors consider HRT to be a risk factor for women with vascular disease.
What Does This Mean?
We need more research into how PAD affects women, especially pregnant women and those who've used birth control pills or HRT. Future studies could look at whether screenings for women with past pregnancy complications could identify those at higher risk of cardiovascular diseases like PAD.