Most people think that preeclampsia, a high blood pressure condition that occurs during pregnancy, goes away after the baby is born.
That’s why Noelle Roth, who was diagnosed with the disease just two days before having her daughter, was surprised to learn that her short stint with the condition had long-term ramifications. It puts her at the same risk of heart disease as a smoker.
“Any woman with a history of preeclampsia has a two to four times increased risk of chronic hypertension, heart disease (such as heart attack), stroke and diabetes,” says UNC Health cardiologist Elizabeth Volz, MD. “It’s not entirely clear why this happens.”
For a bit of perspective, preeclampsia and other hypertensive disorders of pregnancy affect 5 to 8 percent of pregnancies in the United States. That rate is increasing, likely because women are entering pregnancy at an older age, and because rates of underlying medical conditions such as high blood pressure, diabetes, kidney disease and obesity are on the rise, Dr. Volz says.
“I had no idea this condition would become a part of my life long term,” Roth says. “I researched preeclampsia when I first learned my blood pressure was off and didn’t find anything about this.”
The Sneaky Effect of Blood Pressure on Pregnancy
Because Roth’s baby was measuring small in utero, she was referred to Johanna Quist-Nelson, MD, a maternal-fetal medicine specialist, for an in-depth ultrasound. At that appointment, her blood pressure was already high.
Since patients with high blood pressure are at a higher risk for premature birth, Dr. Quist-Nelson recommended that she receive steroid shots. The treatment is often given if the expectant parent is at risk of delivering early. It helps the baby’s lungs develop.
“My husband and I pushed back and asked if I really needed the shots. I thought my blood pressure was up simply because of the stress of the ultrasound. But Dr. Quist-Nelson was insistent that my medical record showed my blood pressure had been elevated throughout the entire pregnancy,” Roth says.
The steroid shots potentially saved the baby’s life: Roth was induced at 34 weeks’ gestation, just about a week after receiving them.
After 30 hours of labor and an emergency cesarean section (because the baby was breech), Callahan Roth (Callie for short) was born and immediately rushed to the neonatal intensive care unit. She stayed in the NICU for 12 days. Thanks to the steroid shots giving her strong lungs, the baby’s focus there was simply on gaining weight.
“Had it not been for Dr. Quist-Nelson strongly recommending us to get the steroid shots, our NICU stay probably would have been much longer and looked very different,” Roth says. “We are so thankful for her.”
How to Take Care of Yourself if You’ve Had Preeclampsia
If you’ve been diagnosed with preeclampsia at any point in your life, you can lower your risk of heart disease by partnering with your doctor to:
- Implement a healthy lifestyle with a heart-healthy diet and regular exercise
- Control your blood pressure, blood sugar and cholesterol
- Stop smoking
Visit a cardiologist to get screened for other risk factors, especially if you’ve experienced symptoms like chest pain, shortness of breath or fatigue with exertion, Dr. Volz says. Additionally, it’s important to let any of your future providers know you have a history of preeclampsia, Dr. Volz says. This includes primary care providers, OB-GYNs or first responders (if you feel like you are having a heart attack or any other type of emergency).
Dr. Volz referred Roth to the Women’s Health and Heart Clinic at UNC Rex for a follow-up appointment a few weeks after she delivered Callie.
“She told me I’ll need to be diligent about visiting my primary care provider each year, and monitor my overall health closely,” Roth says.
Looking for a cardiologist? Find one here.