When we know our own risk factors for heart disease, then we can focus on lifestyle changes to modify them. Many of us are familiar with the commonly discussed risk factors for coronary heart disease like diabetes, family history, high cholesterol, smoking, obesity, physical inactivity and an unhealthy diet to name a few. In fact, high cholesterol can sometimes present on the skin with cholesterol deposits on the eyelids called xanthelasma. Did you know that there are unique risk factors for coronary heart disease that are occur only in women? Some of these risk factors arise during pregnancy, which often is a joyous time in a woman’s life. In addition, pregnancy can also be a time when some women may develop conditions that increase their risk of coronary heart disease – namely, gestational diabetes and pre-eclampsia.
· One risk factor is gestational diabetes. Gestational diabetes is when a woman has diabetes that develops during pregnancy for the first time. With the delivery of her baby, a woman’s blood sugar normalizes. Despite having normal blood sugar after delivering her baby, a woman with a history of gestational diabetes still has a higher risk of coronary heart disease as she ages.
· The other risk factor is pre-eclampsia. Pre-eclampsia is when a pregnant woman has new-onset high blood pressure plus elevated protein in the urine. Like gestational diabetes, pre-eclampsia resolves with the delivery of her baby. Yet, a woman with a history of pre-eclampsia is also at an increased risk of having coronary heart disease as she ages despite having normal blood pressure after delivering the baby. Also, it should be noted that Black women are at a higher risk of developing pre-eclampsia compared to other women.
Both gestational diabetes and pre-eclampsia are two of a handful of examples of how a woman’s risk of heart disease is different than a man’s risk. As women, we should remember our pregnancy history and share that history with our health care providers as we age. Knowledge is power. By empowering women with this information, we can be more proactive in the prevention of heart disease through lifestyle changes of exercise and healthy eating.