Heart disease and pregnancy-related deaths

February 21, 2020

Your heart during pregnancy

During pregnancy, your heart has a lot more work to do than before. Your heart has to beat faster and pump more blood to support your pregnancy. If you have heart disease, then this extra stress on your heart may be a concern.

Most women with heart disease have safe pregnancies. But symptoms of heart disease can increase during pregnancy, especially during the second and third trimesters.

Heart disease and pregnancy-related deaths

Heart disease includes conditions that affect the heart and blood vessels. They often affect the heart muscle or involve narrowed or blocked blood vessels that can lead to a heart attack or stroke. Heart disease affects many women each year in the U.S. 

Heart disease is not only the leading cause of death for women in the United States, it is also a leading cause of pregnancy-related deaths. Pregnancy-related death is when a woman dies during pregnancy or within 1 year after the end of her pregnancy from health problems related to pregnancy. 

  • Heart disease and stroke cause more than 1-in-3 pregnancy-related deaths.
  • Cardiomyopathy (weakened heart muscle) causes the most deaths in women after birth, between 1 week to 1 year.

What you can do

There are certain things that increase the risk for heart disease. Learn what you can do about them.

  • High blood pressure. High blood pressure can put extra stress on your heart and kidneys. This can lead to heart disease, kidney disease and stroke. High blood pressure during pregnancy can also cause preeclampsia and premature birth. High blood pressure usually doesn’t cause signs or symptoms, so you may not know you have it. If you have high blood pressure, talk to your health care provider about how to control it.
  • Smoking. Smoking is a risk factor for heart disease because it damages blood vessel walls. During pregnancy, it can cause problems for your baby, like premature birth. Tell your provider if you need help to quit smoking. Don’t use electronic cigarettes (also called e-cigarettes). These contain chemicals, like nicotine, that can harm you and your baby. Quit smoking before you get pregnant
  • High blood cholesterol. Cholesterol is a waxy substance in your blood. Having too much cholesterol in your blood can narrow your arteries and may cause heart problems. Check your cholesterol levels regularly. If you have high blood cholesterol, talk to your provider about what you can do to control it. 
  • Diabetes. This is a medical condition in which your body has too much sugar (called glucose) in your blood. This can damage organs in your body, including blood vessels, nerves, eyes and kidneys. Untreated diabetes increases your risk for pregnancy complications, like high blood pressure, premature birth, birth defects and pregnancy loss.
  • Overweight and obesity. Being overweight increases your risk for high blood pressure. Eating healthy foods and being physically active can help you lose weight before you get pregnant. Getting to a healthy weight before pregnancy is good for you and your baby.
  • Not being physically active. Regular physical activity can help you protect your heart health. Do 30 minutes of physical activity at least 5 days a week. Two of these days should include strength training. If 30 minutes sounds like a lot, split up the time during the day. For example, ride in a stationary bike for 20 minutes early in the day and take a brisk walk in the afternoon.
  • Not eating healthy foods. Eat plenty of fruits and vegetables every day. Limit red meats and dairy products made with whole milk. Stay away from fried foods and pastries like doughnuts, biscuits and cake with frosting. 

It’s not fine

Unfortunately, too many women in the United States are dying from complications related to pregnancy and childbirth. This is especially true for women of color. In this country, more Black and American Indian/Alaska Native women die from health problems related to pregnancy than white women. It’s not fine that heart disease and stroke disproportionately affects more Black women. According to the American Heart Association, Black women have almost twice the risk of having a stroke than white women.

Take action today

March of Dimes fights for the health of all moms and babies. We’re advocating for policies to protect them. You can help us lead this fight. Take action now to support legislation that can protect the women you love and prevent pregnancy-related deaths.