Heart Attacks during Pregnancy - Causes, Symptoms & more

Why Are Heart Attacks on the Rise Among Pregnant Women?

Medically Reviewed By
Dr. Priyanka Kalra (Gynecologist/Obstetrician)
View more Gynecologist/Obstetrician Our Panel of Experts

Pregnancy is a time of great stress as women have to deal with the pain associated with supporting the growth of another human being in their body. Added to that are increased risks of developing health problems. Although a woman may not have a history of heart problems, there is an increased chance of heart attacks during pregnancy. If you’re an expecting mother, continue reading to know all about heart attacks and pregnancy.

Factors That Increase the Risk of a Heart Attack in Pregnancy

Several factors increase your risks, some of them include:

1. Preeclampsia

Preeclampsia is a pregnancy-induced condition characterised by high blood pressure and the excretion of protein in the urine. It precedes eclampsia which can end in seizures, coma, and death. Having preeclampsia elevates the risk of heart attacks during pregnancy or immediately after. The high blood pressure caused by the condition adds additional stress to the heart. Preeclampsia affects 1 in 12 pregnancies which makes women twice as likely to develop heart disease and a stroke, and four times likely to have high blood pressure. What’s terrifying is that two out of three women who’ve had the condition die later from cardiovascular disease.


2. Gestational Diabetes

Although gestational diabetes generally resolves itself once the baby is born, it increases the risk of diabetes later in life. A 20-year-long study of 898 women between the ages of 18 to 30 found that gestational diabetes increased women’s chances of type 2 diabetes, sub-clinical atherosclerosis and metabolic syndrome. So even if you had gestational diabetes during pregnancy and it disappeared postpartum, you still have a higher risk of a heart attack.

3. Arteries Becoming Narrower

The carotid arteries on either side of the neck supply blood to the brain; underlying conditions can impair the ability of the blood vessels to dilate, making it harder to pump blood. Although numerous factors can lead to a heart attack such as coronary artery disease, family history of atherosclerosis, fat build-up, high blood pressure, diabetes, smoking or high cholesterol- narrowing of arteries makes the blood harder to pump through small blood vessels. The restriction of blood flow is then a risk factor.

Arteries Becoming Narrower

4. Coronary Dissection

Coronary dissection is a condition where the layers of the arterial walls separate, blocking normal blood flow. It is a very rare problem in non-pregnant people but can occur in pregnant women. So that’s another issue to look out for.

5. Problems With Heart Rhythm

A small deviation in heart rhythms is okay during pregnancy due to the stress on the heart on a daily basis. A diagnosis of arrhythmia will require medication; if it worsens or turns highly irregular, further tests are needed to rule out a risk of a heart attack.

Problems With Heart Rhythm

6. Congestive Heart Failure or Defect

When the blood volume becomes too high, it can lead to heart failure. Also, due to conditions that weaken the heart muscles or when the heart enlarges, it won’t be able to supply blood throughout the body properly. This can have fatal results.

Who is at Risk of Having a Heart Attack During Pregnancy?

study published by Mayo Clinic found the risk of a heart attack in women during pregnancy and immediately afterwards has gone up by 25% between the years 2002 and 2014. The study involved 49 million births recorded in hospitals between the years. They discovered that 1061 cases were heart attack during labour- delivery, 922 women were hospitalised due to a heart attack during early pregnancy or before childbirth and 2,390 heart attacks occurred after birth under a two month period.

The researchers at NYU attribute increased heart attack rates among pregnant or recently pregnant women to their age, as many choose to have children later in life. It is seen that pregnant women between ages 35 to 39 have five times more chances of having a heart attack than pregnant women in their 20’s. And pregnant women in their 40’s are ten times more likely. This is because pregnancy and childbirth are a true test of metabolic stress endurance, and it often unmasks an underlying cardiovascular disease.

Who is at Risk of Having a Heart Attack During Pregnancy?

Signs & Symptoms of Heart Attack When Pregnant

These typical symptoms of heart attacks apply to pregnant women as well.

  • Chest pain is the main symptom of a heart attack. It is generally characterised by discomfort, pressure, pain and burning in the chest. The pain can be sharp, dull or seem like there’s an enormous weight sitting on the chest.
  • Lightheadedness, breaking out in a cold sweat, and dizziness are warning signs and can be accompanied by shortness of breath, nausea and vomiting. Women also report pain in the neck, throat, jaw, abdomen or back.
  • Lower tolerance to exercise. Climbing the stairs might suddenly become difficult, and there is a feeling of breathlessness and extreme tiredness.
  • Shortness of breath or laboured breathing while at rest can be a sign of heart failure.
  • An overall feeling of being unwell that seems unusual from what you have experienced before. Many people experience chest pain and fatigue first and then have a heart attack a few hours later.

It’s important to note that heart attack during labour can be hard to spot as the symptoms can easily be masked by the physical exertion of labour.

Signs & Symptoms of Heart Attack When Pregnant

How Can You Reduce the Risk of a Heart Attack During Pregnancy?

Along with regular visits to your OBGYN and gentle exercises, making healthy food choices can go a long way to ensure a healthy pregnancy. Here are some food choices that are good for your heart:

1. Nuts and Beans

These legumes are a must-have for all pregnant women, as they are a great source of healthy proteins, fats and many more essential nutrients. Almonds, cashews, chickpeas and other legumes offer plenty of healthy fats, proteins and copper. If you’re not all that used to consuming beans, start with small 2-3 servings a week to let your digestive system adapt to it.

2. Green Leafy Vegetables

Green leafy vegetables are excellent sources of vitamins and minerals along with the all-important fibre. Include spinach, kale, brussels sprouts, collard greens, broccoli, asparagus, cabbage and other greens in your diet. They are a source of essential minerals needed by the heart. They can be had in the form of smoothies or included in salads and curries. It ensures excellent taste, plus all the nutrients.

Green Leafy Vegetables

3. Whole Grains

Stick to whole grains. Avoid white bread and, instead, go for multigrain bread. The same applies to chapatis– forego refined flour and choose whole wheat. Have a rule of thumb: pick whole grains all the time and avoid refined versions of the same. Fill your pantry with foods made out of whole wheat, flax and quinoa. Have oatmeal for breakfast along with some fruits to make them delicious and wholesome. Whole grains are good for the heart as they do not go through refinement and preserve their nutrients.

4. Dairy

Dairy foods are essential for all pregnant mothers for their calcium and protein content. Add dairy foods like milk, curd, cheese, ghee to the diet so you can get all the necessary proteins and fats. Yoghurt is also an excellent source of good bacteria needed to maintain a healthy digestive system. Ensure that all the dairy products you buy are made out of pasteurised milk for your baby’s health and avoid full-fat versions.


5. Lean Protein From Meat

Meats are an excellent source of proteins and amino acids needed to build the body. However, red meat is to be avoided due to its high content of fat which can be bad for the heart. Meat from poultry and fish is ideal for pregnant women. Fatty fish, chicken and turkey breast are excellent sources of protein and vital nutrients.

Heart attacks during pregnancy are on the rise due to diet and lifestyle choices, among other reasons. While this can sound scary, you can stay healthy and avoid heart issues by simply making the right choices. Making healthy choices in food and lifestyle can greatly cut down the chances of heart attacks.

Also Read: 

Causes of Chest Pain during Pregnancy
Fast Heartbeat During Pregnancy

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