Good heart health before pregnancy helps keep women safe, study finds

Photo (c) Rattanasak Khuentana EyeEm - Getty Images

Struggling with heart health may put women and their babies’ at a higher risk for health complications

A new study conducted by researchers from Northwestern University explored a new pregnancy-related health risk. 

According to their findings, having good heart health before pregnancy is important for mothers’ long-term health and wellness. They explained that mothers and their babies have a higher risk of health complications when women’s heart health is compromised before pregnancy. 

“As women, we tend to think about the baby’s health once we become pregnant, but what so many women don’t realize is the very first thing they can do to protect their babies (and themselves) is to get their heart in shape before they even conceive,” said researcher Dr. Sadiya Khan. 

The importance of heart health

For the study, the researchers analyzed data from over 14 million women who were enrolled in the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s (CDC’s) Natality Database from 2016 through 2019. They looked at heart health before, during, and after pregnancy and explored the role it played in long-term health outcomes for women and their babies across the country. 

The study showed that more than 50% of the women involved in the study were dealing with at least one risk factor that could lead to poor heart health. These risks included diabetes, obesity, and high blood pressure. The researchers explained that these health risks make it more likely for women to experience complications during pregnancy and delivery, and they also increase the risk for newborn health risks. 

“Women with favorable heart health before pregnancy are less likely to experience complications of pregnancy and are more likely to deliver a healthy baby,” said researcher Dr. Natalie Cameron. “Even more importantly, optimizing heart health before and during pregnancy can prevent the development of heart disease years later. Clinicians can play a key role in both assessing and optimizing heart health prior to pregnancy.” 

Where you live matters

The researchers also learned that women’s geographic location may impact their heart health before pregnancy. Utah was found to have the highest percentage of women with good heart health, as nearly 50% of women in Utah were risk-free. Compared to women living in the Northeast and on the West coast, women in the South and Midwest were less likely to have good heart health before pregnancy. 

“The geographic patterns observed here are, unfortunately, very similar to what we see for heart disease and stroke in both women and men,” Dr. Khan said. “They indicate factors, such as social determinants of health, play a critical role in heart health as well as maternal health.” 

The researchers hope these findings encourage young women to pay more attention to their heart health and understand its importance in pregnancy outcomes. 

“Pregnancy is often described as a window to future heart health, and taking the opportunity to leverage the prenatal period to optimize maternal heart health is critical,” said Dr. Khan. “But we also need to focus on optimizing cardiovascular health throughout young adulthood because nearly half of pregnancies are unplanned. We need to emphasize heart health across the lifespan.” 

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