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Preeclampsia Can Raise Risk of Heart Disease

Contributor: Louise E. Wilkins-Haug, MD, PhD
5 minute read
A medical professional in a face mask checks the blood pressure of a pregnant woman in a face mask as she is seated on an examination table

Preeclampsia, a complication of pregnancy, results in high blood pressure and increased levels of protein in the urine. In some severe cases, preeclampsia can lead to seizures and an increased risk of death.

“The cost of preeclampsia is high, as a leading cause of prematurity, and far-reaching, as patients face lifelong increased rates of cardiovascular disease. Pregnant patients with preeclampsia require specialized care during and after pregnancy to improve pregnancy outcomes and long-term health,” says Louise E. Wilkins-Haug, MD, PhD, a Mass General Brigham obstetrician-gynecologist.

Dr. Wilkins-Haug is division director of Maternal-Fetal Medicine at Brigham and Women’s Hospital. Drs. Wilkins-Haug and Thomas McElrath, MD, PhD specialize in the care of pregnant patients with preeclampsia to balance the health risks to patients and their children. Dr. Wilkins-Haug also works with Ann C. Celi, MD, MPH, a primary care physician, in a multidisciplinary clinic within the Maternal-Fetal Medicine Division, to ensure a safe transition from delivery to primary care.

Dr. Wilkins-Haug discusses the dangers, risk factors, and symptoms of preeclampsia, and shares ways for pregnant people to reduce their risk.

People with preeclampsia require specialized care during and after pregnancy to improve pregnancy outcomes and long-term health.

Louise E. Wilkins-Haug, MD, PhD
Mass General Brigham

Why is preeclampsia dangerous?

Doctors have known about preeclampsia for many centuries, though its direct causes are unknown. In some serious cases, doctors may recommend an early birth, at times requiring C-section, despite the health risks of a premature birth for the baby. Research has found that preeclampsia also has long-term health consequences for the pregnant patient.

Patients with a history of preeclampsia have a two- to four-fold increase in the risk of developing high blood pressure and heart disease later in life. For these patients, preeclampsia can serve as a warning, allowing them to take measures to reduce their risk of heart disease.

Risk factors for preeclampsia

Although any pregnant person can develop preeclampsia, some people are at a greater risk than others. Risk factors for preeclampsia include:

What are the signs and symptoms of preeclampsia?

Preeclampsia doesn’t always cause symptoms, so it’s important to meet with your OB/GYN as advised to monitor your health. People who do experience symptoms may notice any of the following:

  • Changes in vision
  • Swelling in feet, hands, or face
  • A throbbing headache
  • Pain in the stomach, low back, and/or right shoulder
  • Sudden weight gain
  • Difficulty breathing
  • Nausea and/or vomiting

Tips to help reduce risk of heart disease

The American Heart Association recommends taking action to keep your heart healthy if you’ve had preeclampsia:

  • Stop smoking cigarettes.
  • Follow a heart-healthy diet.
  • Engage in regular physical activity.
  • Reach and maintain a healthy weight.
  • Tell your primary care provider (PCP) about your history of preeclampsia.