Although certain pregnancy complications are well-documented (preeclampsia, premature birth, and placenta previa, to name but a few), it’s unlikely that many women would have considered the terrifying possibility that they might suffer a heart attack during pregnancy or childbirth or in the portpartum period.
But according to a new report, the number of women who have a heart attack during pregnancy or within six months of delivering their baby appears to be on the rise.
In a new study published in the journal Mayo Clinical Proceedings, researchers looked at 49.8 million births. Of the more than 55 million pregnancy-related hospitalizations identified in the period from Jan. 1, 2002, to Dec. 31, 2014, the study revealed that nearly 4,500 women had heart attacks during pregnancy, childbirth, or in the six weeks after delivery.
Among the women who gave birth, 1,061 suffered a heart attack during their labor and delivery, 922 during their pregnancy, and 2,390 women in the six months after they gave birth.
Around 200 women died after having a heart attack, according to the findings.
Researchers found that although the overall risk of having a heart attack was relatively low, that risk increased by 25%, something they described as being “concerning.”
Among women who had a heart attack during or immediately following pregnancy, the in-hospital mortality rate was 4.5 percent, which researchers said was surprisingly high, considering that women of child-bearing age are generally considered to be at a low risk of suffering from a heart attack.
“Although heart attacks in young women are rare, the time during and immediately after pregnancy is a particularly vulnerable period, during which heart disease may be unmasked,” an author of the study, Dr. Nathaniel Smilowitz, an interventional cardiologist and assistant professor of medicine at New York University Langone Health, told Time.
It is not immediately obvious what could be causing the increased risk, according to Live Science, but researchers suggested that one possible explanation is that women are having children later in life, and that older women are more at risk of heart attacks.
Compared to pregnant women in their 20s, pregnant women from ages 35 to 39 have a five times greater risk of heart attack. Similarly, pregnant women between 40 and 44 were about 10 times more likely to have a heart attack during the study period.
A further explanation for the findings could be that the rates of obesity and diabetes, both of which are risk factors for heart disease, are increasing in women of childbearing age.
The study’s authors call for greater awareness of the risk factors associated with heart disease to help improve the outcomes of pregnant women who develop the condition.
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