Study highlights heart disease risk for pregnant women

7 December 2016        

Category: BHF Comment

Pregnant women and those who have recently given birth need to be aware of the symptoms of heart disease, according to a new report from researchers at the University of Oxford.

The Confidential Enquiry into Maternal Deaths report, from MBRRACE-UK, highlighted that two in 100,000 women died in pregnancy or in the early weeks after childbirth from heart disease, which is the leading cause of women dying in pregnancy or the early weeks after childbirth.

The report showed that overall, 8.5 women per 100,000 died during pregnancy or shortly after giving birth, between 2012 and 2014.

Heart disease deaths

The study looked at the care of 153 women who died from heart disease during or after pregnancy in the UK and Ireland between 2009 and 2014. 

It found that in some instances women had typical symptoms of a heart attack – severe central chest pain spreading to the left arm or back – but did not seek advice from their doctor or midwife because they did not consider they could be at risk of heart problems.

Other women reported severe breathlessness when sitting at rest, made worse when lying flat in bed, but didn’t realise that this could be an indication of heart disease. It was also noted that some women who were known to have heart problems before they became pregnant were not recognised as ‘high risk’ and therefore did not receive the specialist care they needed.

Pre-eclampsia

The report also highlights a major success for maternity care in the UK. It found that between 2012-14, less than one in every million women giving birth died from pre-eclampsia and related conditions, equating to one woman every 18 months across the UK.

Pre-eclampsia is a condition which involves a sudden onset of high blood pressure and protein in the urine in pregnancy. It can be life-threatening to both mother and baby, and can only be cured by delivering the baby as quickly as possible.

When the Confidential Enquiries into Maternal Deaths began in the UK sixty years ago, the figure would have been nearer to 150 women.

Read about our research into the link between salt and pre-eclampsia.

What we said

Dr Mike Knapton, Our Associate Medical Director, said:

“It’s a tragedy that heart disease is taking women’s lives at what should be one of the happiest times a family can have. Maternal deaths have significantly reduced in recent decades, but there are still dozens of maternal deaths per year in the UK.

“Pregnancy and childbirth can put extra strain on the heart, particularly if you have a pre-existing heart condition, and some of these deaths are likely to have been caused by undiagnosed conditions which can cause fatal heart attacks without warning. Doctors should be vigilant and consider heart disease when a pregnant woman is experiencing symptoms such as chest pain. These findings are an urgent reminder that heart disease comes in many forms and can strike almost anyone.

“The British Heart Foundation is funding research to improve diagnosis and treatment of heart conditions, which can occur during pregnancy, and is helping raise awareness of these conditions amongst doctors.”

Research into rare conditions

Spontaneous coronary artery dissection (SCAD) happens when inner layers of a coronary artery tear away from the outer layer. It can lead to a heart attack and can be fatal.

Eighty per cent of sufferers are women, and 30 per cent are in late pregnancy or have recently given birth. We’re funding the UK’s first research into this poorly understood condition.

Find out more