A pregnancy condition that endangers the lives of mothers and babies can lead to serious heart health issues for women up to 10 years after childbirth and yet few are aware of the risks.
Pre-eclampsia affects one in 10 Australian pregnancies each year. Although the symptoms, such as high blood pressure, disappear after pregnancy, the risk of heart disease continues at up to four times the usual rate.
Dr Melinda Hutchesson, Nutrition and Dietetics researcher from the University of Newcastle and HMRI, surveyed Australian women with a recent diagnosis of pre-eclampsia and discovered that 40% were not aware that they were at greater risk of developing cardiovascular health complications.
Dr Hutchesson also noted that few of these women were monitored or assessed for cardiovascular risk. “In the year after birth most had their blood pressure measured, but less than half had their cholesterol or blood glucose levels screened,” Dr Hutchesson said.
“It was concerning that few women had received advice on lifestyle risk factors such as weight management, quitting smoking, regular exercise and healthy eating from a health professional,” Dr Hutchesson said.
Women with pre-eclampsia can appear healthy after delivering their baby, but many of these heart health risks are invisible to both women and their doctors, said the Heart Foundation’s Director of Prevention, Julie Anne Mitchell.
“In Australia, our death rates associated with these conditions are low, as our healthcare professionals are excellent at handling incidents of preeclampsia and hypertension during a pregnancy,” said Ms Mitchell.
“However, we are concerned that the care often stops there for the mothers, when a focus on maintaining good heart health and regular checkups over the coming years is essential for long term health and wellbeing.
“As a community we need to recognise heart disease in women is an issue deserving attention. Healthcare professionals can play an important role in encouraging women to become more heart health aware and have regular heart health checks, particularly if they have risk factors,” said Ms Mitchell.
Healthy lifestyle changes can significantly reduce cardiovascular risk factors, such as being overweight, high blood pressure, high blood sugar and cholesterol.
“We know that making these lifestyle changes can positively affect women’s lives,” says Dr Hutchesson. “Quitting smoking, eating a heart-healthy diet and getting 30 minutes exercise most days of the week can reduce the risk factors for heart disease and lead to a healthier life.
“Long-term, a heart-healthy screening program and education and advice for pregnant women should be a priority to improve their health and wellbeing,” Dr Hutchesson added.
In research funded by the Heart Foundation, Dr Hutchesson will be evaluating an online heart disease program for women in the Hunter Region who have had pre-eclampsia in the past five years.
* HMRI partners with the University of Newcastle, Hunter New England Health and the community.