Preeclampsia in expectant mothers leads to high blood pressure.

Today’s post is written by Dr. Ellen Seely, Director of Clinical Research, Endocrinology, Diabetes and Hypertension Division at Brigham and Women’s Hospital (BWH).

Recently, the serious nature of preeclampsia, a complication of pregnancy, was highlighted on the popular TV series, Downton Abbey. During an episode that aired in January 2013, Lady Sybil Crawley suffered complications from the condition before delivery and after giving birth. In expectant mothers, preeclampsia results in high blood pressure and increased levels of protein in the urine. In some severe cases, preeclampsia can lead to eclampsia (seizures) and an increased risk of death.

Doctors have known about eclampsia for many centuries though its direct causes are unknown. The only cure for a mother-to-be remains delivery of her baby. In some serious cases, an early delivery, at times requiring Cesarean section, may be recommended, despite the health risks of a premature birth for the baby.

“The cost of preeclampsia is high, as a leading cause of prematurity, and far-reaching, as mothers face lifelong increased rates of cardiovascular disease. Women with preeclampsia need specialized care during and after pregnancy to improve pregnancy outcomes and long-term health,” said Dr. Louise Wilkins-Haug, Division Director, Maternal Fetal Medicine and Reproductive Genetics at BWH.

Drs. Wilkins-Haug and Thomas McElrath specialize in the care of pregnant women with preeclampsia to balance the health risks to women and their children.  Dr. Wilkins-Haug also works with Dr. Ann Celi, a primary care physician, in a multidisciplinary clinic within the Maternal-Fetal Medicine Division, to ensure a safe transition from delivery to primary care.

While preeclampsia resolves after delivery, research has found it has long-term health consequences.  Women with a history of preeclampsia have a two- to four-fold increase in the risk of developing hypertension (high blood pressure) and heart disease later in life.  For these women, preeclampsia can serve as a warning, allowing them to take measures to reduce their heart disease risk.

Go Red for Women, sponsored by the American Heart Association, is a campaign that occurs each February to educate all women about the need to take care of their hearts.  It also is an ideal time to remind women who have experienced preeclampsia to take steps now to reduce their risk of heart disease.

Since 2011, the American Heart Association (AHA) has recommended that women who have had preeclampsia:

  • Stop cigarette smoking
  • Follow a heart healthy diet such as the DASH diet
  • Engage in regular physical activity
  • Reach and maintain a healthy weight
  • Make sure their primary care physician is aware about their history of preeclampsia

Did you have preeclampsia?

At BWH, Drs. Ellen Seely, Aditi Saxena, and Janet Rich-Edwards are doing research about the relationship between preeclampsia and the development of heart disease.  If you’ve had preeclampsia, you may be able to participate in a research study looking at the link between preeclampsia and future heart disease. You can learn more about participation by calling (617) 732-5838.

Additional information on preeclampsia can be found at the Preeclampsia Foundation.


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