Researchers from Lund University have found that the narrowing of the blood vessels in the heart is more common in women previously affected by pregnancy complications.
It is well understood that certain pregnancy complications can increase the risk of heart disease. However, the relationship between arteriosclerosis and pregnancy has not been subject to a large-scale study.
“Our results suggest that the correlation exists even among women with a low expected risk of cardiovascular disease. The study is an important piece of the puzzle in understanding how women with pregnancy complications should be followed up by their healthcare provider after pregnancy,” said Simon Timpka, associate professor of clinical epidemiology at Lund University.
Using CT scans to identify heart disease symptoms
The researchers analysed data on 10,528 women from the National Medical Birth Register. The women involved subsequently participated in the Swedish CArdiopulmonary bioImage Study (SCAPIS) between the ages of 50 to 65 years. Each participant underwent CT scanning of their coronary arteries in order to detect calcification and narrowing of blood vessels and other signs of heart disease.
The researchers assessed the signs of heart disease by examining the participant’s history in relation to five common complications in pregnancy: pre-eclampsia, high blood pressure during pregnancy, preterm delivery, gestational diabetes and infants born small for gestational age.
Women who experienced pregnancy complications had a 4% higher rate of visible atherosclerosis of the coronary arteries, compared to the women who had not had complications in pregnancy (32% as opposed to 28%).
Pregnancy complications can damage coronary arteries
The highest risk was found in women who suffered from pre-eclampsia and gestational hypertension during pregnancy. Only 2% of women who had not experienced pregnancy complications had narrowing in coronary arteries, compared to 5% among women who previously experienced pre-eclampsia or pregnancy-induced hypertension.
“To reduce the risk of these women developing coronary heart disease in the future, it is important that they check risk factors such as blood pressure, blood sugar and cholesterol regularly,” said Sofia Sederholm Lawesson, consultant cardiologist at the University Hospital in Linköping and one of the co-authors of the study.
“In this study, we have investigated many different associations between complications in pregnancy and heart disease all at once, so it is possible that chance might explain individual results,” added Timpka.
“Yet the pattern is relatively consistent, which makes it easier to draw conclusions including that women with prior pre-eclampsia have changes in the coronary arteries that are equivalent to the changes seen in women who have not experienced complications in pregnancy but are five to ten years older,” he continued.
The researchers have said that the lack of large-scale studies on the long-term impact of these symptoms has made it difficult to fully understand their severity.
“Even if our study provides new knowledge on the development of coronary heart disease among middle-aged women who have previously suffered complications in pregnancy, there is a need for long-term studies in order to understand the true meaning that our discoveries have for symptomatic disease,” concluded Timpka.