Preeclampsia may permanently change blood vessels to increase heart disease risk

Preeclampsia may permanently change the blood vessels of women who experience the condition during pregnancy, boosting their lifelong risk for cardiovascular disease, according to Penn State researchers.

In a study, researchers compared women who had healthy pregnancies with those that experienced preeclampsia, a condition in which blood vessels around the uterus constrict during pregnancy and can result in symptoms that include high blood pressure, kidney damage, swelling and headaches.

The researchers found that after a pregnancy, the blood vessels of women who experienced preeclampsia function differently than women who had healthy pregnancies, which could help explain why women who have had preeclampsia go on to have a higher risk of cardiovascular disease.

“We were able to show that even though the symptoms of preeclampsia go away once the woman gives birth, there’s still an underlying dysfunction in the blood vessels,” said Anna Stanhewicz, a post-doctoral fellow in the College of Health and Human Development. “This suggests that something happens during a preeclamptic pregnancy that permanently changes the way blood vessels function.”

Stanhewicz said the findings — published in the current issue of Hypertension — could help lead to better prevention and treatment of cardiovascular disease, which is the leading cause of death for women in the United States. According to Stanhewicz, preeclampsia — which affects approximately 7 percent of pregnant women in the U.S. — increases a woman’s risk for developing heart disease to that of a lifelong smoker’s.

While previous research has examined the effects of preeclampsia on the blood vessels of mice and rats, Stanhewicz and the other researchers wanted to look at the effects of the condition on human blood vessels.

“We wanted to see if vessel dysfunction does in fact still occur after pregnancy. If we compare how well the blood vessels are functioning in women that had…

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