Pregnancy is a joy for many parents as it enables them to have children and grow their families.
Irrespective of its significance, pregnancy also exerts pressure on women’s bodies, leading to various complications such as pre-eclampsia and preterm births.
Pre-eclampsia refers to high blood pressure in pregnant women who have not had hypertension before.
Affected women will have a high level of protein in their urine and often also have a swelling in the feet, legs and hands.
A preterm or premature birth on the other hand, is defined as a delivery that takes place more than three weeks before the baby’s estimated due date (occurring before the start of the 37th week of pregnancy).
Most mothers are usually prepared to take in stride the pregnancy challenges or complications, with the hope that all will be well after delivery.
However, new research published in the American Heart Association Journal indicates that giving birth may not halt all adverse health effects.
Indeed, the study found that women who experience complications such as preterm births and pre-eclampsia during their first pregnancy are nearly twice more likely to develop high blood pressure later in life (some as quickly as three years after delivery) than mothers that had no complications.
“We used to think it took years and years to develop high blood pressure. We found that it can occur much sooner than expected, in as little as three years,” said Dr David Haas, lead author of the study and professor of obstetrics and gynaecology at the US-based Indiana University School of Medicine.
The researchers note that their findings underscore the need for doctors to focus more aggressively on knowing the health histories of women, during pregnancy to help prevent the complications.
Close monitoring is also recommended afterwards — for those that suffered from pre-eclampsia or stillbirth — so as reduce their risk of developing hypertension in the future.
“The take-home message for pregnant women is to get prenatal care early, talk to your obstetric provider about your current health conditions, and make sure your health is as good as it can be,” said Dr Haas who is also a practising obstetric and gynaecologist.
“This research is an important step towards improving women’s health. It further highlights the importance of gathering detailed information about pregnancy outcomes,” said Victoria Pemberton, a co-author of the study and Programme Officer at the US National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute.
The study recruited 4,484 women. They had an average age of 27 at their first pregnancy.
The researchers obtained detailed medical histories of the women (two to seven years after their first pregnancy) to determine whether outcomes in their first pregnancies were associated with their cardiovascular health.
Results of the study revealed that 31 percent of the women with at least one adverse outcome during their first pregnancy experienced chronic hypertension, while only 17 percent of those who did not experience complications developed this condition.
The risk of developing chronic hypertension grew even higher with additional adverse outcomes.
To reduce the risk of pre-eclampsia and other complications, health experts note that women should strive to be in good health and avoid excess weight before conception.
Once they become pregnant, they should ensure that they attend all prenatal visits.
The check-ups enable doctors to routinely monitor their blood pressure, weight gain of the unborn child as well as levels of protein in the urine.
This will make them aware of women at risk of pre-eclampsia.
Early delivery is often recommended for such mothers to prevent health complications that can harm the mother and child.
Besides, doctors may recommend a daily low dose of aspirin (12 weeks after pregnancy) for women with pre-eclampsia risk factors including a history of the condition, multiple pregnancies, chronic high blood pressure, kidney disease, diabetes or autoimmune disease.
Women who have calcium deficiency before pregnancy — and upon becoming expectant fail to get sufficient amounts of the nutrient through their diets — might benefit from calcium supplements to prevent pre-eclampsia.
Mothers are, however, advised to refrain from taking any medications, vitamins or supplements without first talking to their doctors.
With regards to stillbirths, certain cases can be prevented through stress reduction during pregnancy as well as quitting smoking, which can trigger preterm labour.
Researchers have also found a link between gum disease and preterm birth. So, good dental hygiene that involves brushing teeth daily is also important.
Also, recent studies have shown that treatment with a hormone called progesterone can prevent preterm birth in some mothers.
For women who have complications during their first pregnancy, health experts recommend closer health monitoring and more counselling about possible lifestyle modifications to prevent high blood pressure.
These may include regular blood pressure tests, monitoring cholesterol levels, routine physical activity and embracing healthy diets to avert obesity.
A person with hypertension may not notice any symptoms. This is why the disease is often called the Silent Killer.
In rare and severe cases, high blood pressure causes sweating, anxiety, sleeping problems, and blushing.
However, most people with hypertension will experience no symptoms at all.
Without detection, hypertension can damage the heart, blood vessels, and other organs such as the kidneys.