Pregnancy-related high blood pressure can have life-changing impacts on mothers and babies, and that’s why the Office on Women’s Health (OWH) remains committed to improving blood pressure control in women of reproductive age.
High blood pressure, or hypertension, is a health concern that reproductive-age women face now more than ever. New research shows pre-pregnancy high blood pressure rates nearly doubled between 2007 and 2018. The observed increase occurred across the spectrum – from women ages 15 to 44 years old living in rural and urban areas.
The good news: Reproductive-age women can start taking steps – often simple and inexpensive – to reduce and monitor blood pressure, thereby improving their own health and the health of their future children.
For example, though you may be used to seeing older women taking aspirin, a low-dose version of it can benefit some younger women too. Since 2014, the U.S. Preventive Services Task Force (USPSTF) has recommended the use of low-dose aspirin (81 mg/d) as preventive medication in women who are 12 or more weeks pregnant and at high risk for preeclampsia, which is pregnancy-related high blood pressure. The USPSTF is currently reviewing the latest research to determine whether its prenatal aspirin guidance should be updated.
Another way to decrease risk of preeclampsia: increase your physical activity. To jumpstart your routine, check out the updated Move Your Way Activity Planner with new content developed by OWH and the Office of Disease Prevention and Health Promotion (ODPHP) for pregnant or postpartum women.
If you or someone you know is at high-risk for preeclampsia, talk with a doctor about what you can do to lower your blood pressure. Knowing how to communicate your symptoms to your physician may be the difference between life and death, says Kim Smith, who survived a severe form of preeclampsia known as HELLP syndrome.
On a peaceful and calm Sunday evening nine years ago, Smith suddenly became very sick with severe pain in the upper right side of her belly. She was 5 months pregnant, so she and her husband rushed to the local emergency room. When they arrived, the first ultrasound revealed that their daughter’s heartbeat was faint, and by the second ultrasound she was gone.
“What I didn’t understand at the time was that I wasn’t out of the woods yet,” Smith recalls. “You see my blood pressure was peaking at 200 over 100, I could’ve had a stroke.”
During the weeks after she lost the baby, Smith went back to the hospital twice with high blood pressure. By partnering with her physicians to improve her heart health – reducing stress at work, improving her diet, and taking low-dose “baby” aspirin – she lowered her blood pressure to that of a teenager’s. A year later, Smith was pregnant with the oldest of her three, healthy sons.
Today as an advocate and Preeclampsia Foundation Board of Directors Chair, Smith says, “I want women to know my story but that it doesn’t have to be theirs. My goal is not to sow seeds of fear, but to empower them.”
During Heart Month, Smith’s words remind us the majority of pregnancy-related deaths are preventable. Although we may not fully understand what is causing more women to experience high blood pressure, it does not mean we cannot combat the upswing. To that end, our office recently launched a national prize competition to identify programs that provide effective monitoring and follow-up for patients with hypertension. The goal: Expanding and replicating successful programs to positively impact pregnant and postpartum women.
While this national effort is underway, remember the simple steps each of us can take today regardless of age. We can make a note to talk with our doctors about monitoring blood pressure – it may be a conversation that prevents a life-changing health complication.