Investigating the Link Between Preeclampsia and Heart Disease

pregnant woman talking to a doctor

Five to eight percent of pregnant women will be diagnosed with preeclampsia: high blood pressure caused by pregnancy. For decades, doctors have considered delivery to be the cure for preeclampsia because most immediate health risks to the mother and child are eliminated after giving birth.

But new research has shown that preeclampsia is linked with long-term heart disease and dysfunction, even 20 to 30 years after the mother has given birth. Researchers in the Department of Obstetrics and Gynecology and in the Division of Cardiology at the University of Pennsylvania are currently investigating this link in the hopes of decreasing the burden of heart disease on these women.

“We’re learning so much about the heart-related health risks for women with preeclampsia,” says Lisa Levine, MD, MSCE, Division of Maternal Fetal Medicine at the Hospital of the University of Pennsylvania. “Women with a history of preeclampsia are at such high risk for heart disease later in life that the American Heart Association now requires cardiologists to ask women about a history of preeclampsia when screening for heart disease.”

Two Penn Medicine studies are evaluating women with preeclampsia at two different points: during and right after pregnancy, and a decade later.

Launched in March 2015, the Study of Cardiovascular Outcomes in Preeclampsia using Echocardiogram (SCOPE) is looking for factors that may contribute to heart problems during and immediately after pregnancy.

Participants receive an echocardiogram (a painless ultrasound test) and a blood test at three different points: right after being diagnosed with preeclampsia, after giving birth, and six to twelve weeks after delivery.

“Certain factors, such as race, age or how many weeks they were when they were diagnosed with preeclampsia, may put some women at higher risk for future heart problems than others,” Levine says. “SCOPE is trying to determine what factors increase a woman’s lifetime risk for cardiovascular disease by looking for differences between women with preeclampsia and those without it.”

Levine’s second study — Cardiovascular Risk after Preeclampsia, (CRISP) — is looking at the same population years later. Women who had preeclampsia ten or more years ago have an echocardiogram performed and a blood test to assess their cholesterol, kidney function and other indicators of heart health.

“Again, we’re comparing women with and without preeclampsia, but the CRISP study is looking at the interim between their preeclampsia diagnosis and the heart disease that we’re seeing decades later,” Levine says. “We’re looking for noticeable cardiac problems around the ten-year mark. If so, we may be able to intervene before another decade passes and a more dangerous heart problem develops.”

“We don’t know if preeclampsia itself is putting women at higher risk for heart problems later in life, or if they have an underlying issue that puts them at risk for both preeclampsia and heart disease,” Levine says. “There’s just so much we still don’t know about this issue because it’s so new and understudied.”

If you experience preeclampsia during pregnancy and are interested in seeing a cardiologist, Penn Heart and Vascular has a wide range of specialists. Our cardiologists are here to advise, counsel and help you be your healthiest you.

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