heart disease, such as smoking, obesity and insufficient physical activity, compared to those living under much better social conditions.
“Many women in the United States enter pregnancy with suboptimal cardiovascular health,” says Dr. Sadiya Khan, an assistant professor of medicine and preventive medicine at Northwestern University Feinberg School of Medicine in Chicago. “But the upstream drivers of poor cardiovascular health at the time of pregnancy are social determinants of health. Pregnancy represents a time during which we can intervene to address both clinical and social risk factors to reduce risks associated with pregnancy and beyond.”
Khan, who was not involved in the new study, was part of the writing committee for last year’s American Heart Association statistical update on heart disease and stroke. It was updated to include data on heart-related pregnancy complications, recognizing the increasing threat heart disease poses to pregnant women and their children.
The risks are higher for some women.
Black women are more than twice as likely to die during or soon after pregnancy than their white counterparts and three times as likely as Hispanic women. They also are 50% more likely to give birth to a baby prematurely and nearly twice as likely to have low birthweight babies.
How do pregnant women prevent poor outcomes?
“If you want to prevent these outcomes, optimizing cardiovascular health in pregnant women gives us a huge window of opportunity to do so,” lead study author Dr. Garima Sharma, director of cardio-obstetrics at Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine in Baltimore notes.
She says women who are pregnant or thinking of becoming pregnant may be more motivated to make lifestyle changes to reduce their heart health risks if they are made aware of ways to do so. “We really need to start reaching out to them as early as possible to help break down some of these barriers. We need to focus on primordial and primary prevention in young women and focus on intervening before they have adverse pregnancy outcomes,” Sharma, an assistant professor of medicine at Johns Hopkins University adds.
She says the next step is to study interventions that can improve access to preventive care and to take a closer look at how social determinants may be affecting pregnant women in rural areas compared to urban places.
“Then we can have a conversation about where best to allocate public health resources.”
How to protect your heart health during pregnancy
The more proactive you are, the greater chance you have of a healthy pregnancy for both you and your child. Luckily, there are many things you can do to protect your heart during pregnancy, according to Inova Newsroom:
- Be your own health advocate. If something doesn’t feel right to you, have a conversation with your doctor.
- Eat a balanced, nutritious diet with more fruits and vegetables
- Exercise regularly. Pick an activity you enjoy so it doesn’t feel like a chore.
- Get enough sleep. Try sleeping an extra 30 minutes a day.
- Reach and maintain a healthy weight. This varies for each person, so don’t get too stuck on the number.
- Don’t smoke or vape. (Just don’t.)
- Don’t stress the small stuff. Try to find ways to manage stress in positive and productive ways, and seek help when you need it.
- Consider practicing mindfulness. Take 5 minutes every morning to clear your mind, relax and think about how you want to go about your day.
- See a doctor regularly to monitor health and manage problems.