Healthwatch 16: Pregnancy and your Heart

GEISINGER MEDICAL CENTER -- There's a link between complications during pregnancy and cardiovascular problems later in life, according to a doctor at Geisinger who is beginning a study to find out why.

Jess Mathews, 35, from Selinsgrove, is pregnant with her first child, a little boy. She says everything was going great until about two months ago.

"I mentioned to my provider that I was having some, what I thought were palpitations, and some tightness in my chest," she recalled.

Since heart disease runs in her family, she was referred to a cardiologist. After lots of testing, she learned everything was just fine, and she was asked to be part of a new research study.

"I thought, 'I fit the criteria. I'm a woman. I'm pregnant. And it runs in my family,'" Mathews said.

"So what we're trying to do is to identify if there are differences between men and women in the way we treat heart disease and identifying how we fix it," said Dr. Kimberly Ann Skelding.

Dr. Skelding is director of Women's Heart and Vascular Program at Geisinger Health System. She says women with pregnancy-related complications have a higher risk of having heart disease later in life. What research can't explain yet is why.

"What we're looking at is the relationship between the women who had those complications and the event rate later in life with heart disease," Dr. Skelding explained.

Those complications include:

  • high blood pressure,
  • high blood sugar or gestational diabetes,
  • babies born too small or too large,
  • babies born prematurely,
  • miscarriages,
  • problems with the placenta.

The study is being funded, in part, by a grant from Alpha Phi Sorority, whose nationwide philanthropy is heart disease in women. The grant is specific to Geisinger.

What researchers will do is compare genetic markers between pregnant and non-pregnant women, to figure out if problems are genetic or can be prevented.

Dr. Skelding says, so far, more than 100 patients are enrolled, Jess Mathews included.

"They were very excited to have their first pregnant patient! So I was excited to help," said Mathews.

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