The 2013 annual conference of the American Heart Association was held recently in Dallas, Texas. At a press briefing there, Dr. Afshan B. Hameed said that cardiovascular disease is the leading cause of death related to pregnancy in the state of California. Of the various forms of heart disease, cardiomyopathy (enlarged heart) is the leading form that caused the pregnancy-related deaths of women in the state.

The symptoms of heart disease in women are different from the symptoms men classically experience. As a result, heart disease in the general population of women is often overlooked or misdiagnosed, as heart disease has historically been considered an older man’s disease. The symptoms women experience are many of the same symptoms and discomforts that accompany pregnancy.

Hameed, an associate professor of clinical cardiology obstetrics, and gynecology at the University of California at Irvine led a team of researchers through a review of medical records to isolate cardiovascular disease in pregnant women. Some of his findings include:

  • 2,147,492 live births in California between 2002 and 2005
  • 732 deaths occurred during pregnancy or within a year after giving birth
  • 209 of these deaths were related to pregnancy
  • 54 of these pregnancy-related deaths were due to cardiovascular complications
  • 35 were from cardiomyopathy
  • Fewer than 25 percent were diagnosed with cardiovascular disease before delivery
  • 6 percent were diagnosed before pregnancy, making them pre-existing conditions
  • 8 percent were diagnosed during pregnancy
  • 8 percent diagnosed during labor and delivery
  • 37 percent of the deaths were diagnosed after delivery
  • 41 percent were diagnosed during autopsy
  • 43 percent of the cardiomyopathy deaths were African-American
  • 17 percent of the African-American deaths were not related to heart disease
  • 49 percent of cardiomyopathy deaths involved obesity
  • 23 percent of non-heart-disease deaths involved obesity
  • Half the women dying from cardiomyopathy were younger than 30
  • 15 percent were between 30 and 35 years of age
  • The death rate was four times higher when illicit drugs were being used

Some symptoms of heart disease that mimic symptoms of pregnancy include:

  • Shortness of breath
  • Heart palpitations
  • Fatigue
  • Anxiety

Dr. Hameed has issued a call to action to the medical community everywhere to be more aware of the risks of heart disease in pregnant women of any age. He feels that increased awareness of the risk of heart disease during and one year after pregnancy will prompt more obstetricians and gynecologists to refer patients for life-saving cardiology care when suspicious symptoms develop.

Source: Susman, Ed. “AHA: Enlarged Heart Cited in Pregnancy Deaths.” MedPage Today. Nov. 19, 2013. Web. Nov. 20, 2013.