Compared to those with normal blood pressure during pregnancy, women who developed blood pressure disorders such as preeclampsia and gestational hypertension had significant differences in heart structure and function a decade after giving birth.
These differences mainly affect the heart's left ventricle and may increase a woman's risk of heart disease and heart failure later in life, without her being aware of it, according to the University of Pittsburgh study published Feb. 22 in the Journal of the American College of Cardiology.
The findings may help doctors identify women at high risk of long-term heart problems and start preventive treatment, the researchers suggested.
"Hypertension is a silent killer," said study author Dr. Malamo Countouris, a cardiologist and co-director of UPMC Magee-Womens Hospital Postpartum Hypertension Clinic.
"None of the women in our study had clinical symptoms of heart disease -- they are young and probably feel well and healthy, and may not be seeing a health care provider regularly -- but it's important to start screening them for high blood pressure early," she added in a university news release.
The study also found that women with a history of high blood pressure both during pregnancy and now were most at risk for heart problems.
Eight to 10 years after giving birth, 79% of women in this "double-hit" group had thickening in the walls of their left ventricles. That compared to 36.4% of women with high blood pressure only during pregnancy; 46.2% with current high blood pressure alone; and 38.2% of women with neither.
Having both high blood pressure in pregnancy and currently was associated with a condition in which the left ventricle gets stiffer and doesn't fill to full capacity with blood.
"Identifying women at high risk can provide a window of opportunity for targeted interventions to prevent heart disease," Countouris said. "Suggesting simple changes in lifestyle or diet, including regular exercise and better management of other cardiovascular risk factors, can prevent adverse changes in the heart and lower the risk of heart disease later in life."
Further research is needed to learn more about the relationship between complicated pregnancies and long-term effects on the heart, Countouris concluded.
The American Academy of Family Physicians has more on high blood pressure during pregnancy.
SOURCE: University of Pittsburgh, news release, Feb. 22, 2021