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USF launches new program to help pregnant and postpartum women with heart disease

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Posted at 7:30 AM, Feb 14, 2022
and last updated 2022-02-14 07:58:19-05

TAMPA, Fla. — “We want women to know that heart disease affects women. It’s the number one killer in women,” said Dr. Daniela Crousillat, Assistant Professor of Medicine for the Divison of Cardiovascular Sciences at the University of South Florida.

Doctors are seeing a rise in women dying during pregnancy or in their first year after, and the number one cause is heart disease.

“It’s an important message for women to know even if they’re thinking about getting pregnant,” said Crousillat.

Some of the risk factors include:

  • spontaneous pre-term birth
  • preeclampsia
  • gestational diabetes
  • issues with the placenta
  • problems with the baby’s growth
  • diabetes
  • high blood pressure
  • obesity
  • high cholesterol

“One study that we did here at the University of South Florida, looked at young, pregnant women in their first pregnancy and if they experienced one of those syndromes, their risk was about 20% higher of having a heart condition in the next five years over someone who didn’t have that condition,” said Dr. Mary Ashley Cain, Assistant Professor of Obstetrics and Gynecology at USF.

Doctors believe one of the reasons they’re seeing a rise in these issues and mortality rates is because women are getting pregnant later in life.

“As we’re sort of a little bit older we also acquire more of those risk factors that are associated with heart disease,” said Crousillat.

Any complications a women experiences during pregnancy can impact a their overall lifetime risk of heart disease.

“Unfortunately a lot of those risk factors do not go away. So it’s not uncommon that women still, after the baby is delivered and everything seems like it’s over right? Sometimes the blood pressure gets better, the diabetes goes away, they’re still at risk in the long term,” said Crousillat.

These are reasons why USF is launching a new cardiology and obstetrics program to help care for women during and after pregnancy with pre-existing conditions or acquired cardiovascular disease from pregnancy.

The USF Health Cardio Obstetrics program is being spearheaded by Dr. Cain and Dr. Crousillat.

“We safely sort of helping women navigate their pregnancy," said Crousillat.

They want women who are even just thinking about getting pregnant, to check in with their physician about their risk factors.

"Say do I have any of these risk factors? Is there anything that I can do to sort of either optimize my health or decrease the risk that I’ll get into trouble either during pregnancy or beyond?" said Crousillat.

Doctors stress, for women who are postpartum, be alert for anything that seems off.

“Postpartum time is actually one of the riskiest times for a woman in a pregnancy and it goes unrecognized. Moms are very focused on taking care of the baby… We think oh the pregnancy is over, all of those issues or complications are done and the truth of the matter is that they’re not and that we do need a little closer follow up and closer care,” said Cain.

Doctors said there are several symptoms to look out for that may signal something isn’t right:

  • chest pain
  • shortness of breath
  • elevated blood pressure
  • spots in vision
  • severe headaches
  • not feeling right

“These aren’t the normal postpartum problems that you should be writing off and saying I’m tired I just need to focus on my baby. Women are pretty quick to do that and it can result in a very dangerous situation for them,” said Cain.

There are some ways to decrease risk factors.

“Certainly if you’ve had gestational diabetes you need to get a screening once a year by your primary care doctor. If you’ve had preeclampsia or high blood pressure during the pregnancy you need to be seen yearly by your primary care doctor to get additional screenings for high blood pressure. Weight loss helps. Any type of lifestyle modifications help to decrease that risk but one of the strongest things that can help to decrease your overall risk is breastfeeding,” said Cain.