To bring awareness to the pressing issue of women’s heart health, the first Friday in February has been designated Go Red for Women Day. Heart disease (cardiovascular disease) is the most common cause of death in women.* For this reason, it is important to develop ways to predict a woman’s future heart health. One promising avenue involves pregnancy.
Heart Health During Pregnancy
The benefit of looking at pregnancy as a natural stress test for the heart is that it can serve to alert the patient and care providers of possible issues to come. During pregnancy, there are changes in weight and there may also be changes in blood sugar and in blood pressure. Sometimes the blood sugar changes so much that the woman is diagnosed with gestational diabetes (diabetes that develops during pregnancy). This increases the risk of developing diabetes later in life, so it can serve as an alert to focus on managing risk factors for diabetes.
Other relevant conditions can develop during pregnancy. Preeclampsia is a condition in which the blood pressure rises significantly and causes damage to organs. During pregnancy, blood pressure can also increase without damaging organs. A baby born early or underweight can be a sign that the mother may be at increased risk of developing heart disease, heart failure or stroke later in life.* It is important for such eventualities to be shared with the healthcare professionals who are caring for the mother so that these early warning signs can be addressed to decrease future dangers.
Recently gathered information supports the importance of paying attention to these warnings. In 2016, the rate of gestational diabetes in the U.S. was 6%, with an increased risk of cardiovascular problems later in life. (In 2012 the rate was 0.4% lower.) Nearly 27% of maternal deaths are due to cardiovascular conditions.*
Women are usually under the care of a medical provider while pregnant. It is important to take note of the symptoms experienced during pregnancy to share with providers in the future. These conditions generally improve after the baby is born and can be easily forgotten or pushed aside. Instead, they should be recognized as possible indicators of increased risk of future cardiovascular problems.
Effects of Poor Health on Family
The American Heart Association and American Diabetes Association recently conducted a survey of 2,000 adults in the United States about their perspectives on health and life. Interestingly, those 18–23 years old (Generation Z) ranked a number of experiences ahead of having children as “top life moments.” However, Millennials, Generation Xers and Baby Boomers all rated having children as the top life moment. Other results from this survey included positive adaptations to the COVID-19 pandemic. These included eating a healthier diet, exercising more and learning a new skill.**
This survey identified spending time with family and friends as a significant focus. Respondents want their loved ones to be able to enjoy time with them. There was concern that poor health could negatively affect the time spent together. People who answered questions and had heart disease, Type 2 diabetes or a history of stroke showed marked concern that their health would have a negative impact on their ability to participate in these valued life experiences.**
This brings us back to the importance of paying attention to warning signs, whether pregnancy-related or not, to be proactive in our approach to long-term health. Americans with Type 2 diabetes have twice the heart attack, heart failure and stroke risk of those free of this condition.** This fact helps to highlight the interconnectedness of chronic conditions that affect different body systems.
Heart Health During the COVID-19 Pandemic
Although there are many health concerns in this COVID-19 pandemic, it is important to continue practicing proactive wellness. In order to decrease risks associated with chronic heart conditions, maintain regular visits with healthcare providers to monitor for risks or the development of chronic conditions. Paying attention to warning signs now will improve long-term health and the ability to participate in life with family and friends in the future.
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*Heart.org, Statistics report puts spotlight on pregnancy and heart health in January 2021.
**Heart.org, Survey: Health concerns weigh heavier on Gen Z in February 2021.
The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author’s and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of Grand Canyon University. Any sources cited were accurate as of the publish date.