Young moms-to-be linked to greater stroke risks

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Researchers look closely at the link between age, pregnancy and stroke

If you’re pregnant and under age 35, you could have a higher risk of stroke during and after your pregnancy compared to your non-pregnant counterparts, according to a new study published in JAMA Neurology.pregnant-mom-small-image

Over the span of a decade, researchers followed more than 19,000 women who had strokes. The study showed that:

  • Eighteen percent of all strokes in women younger than age 35 were related to pregnancy.
  • Stroke risks doubled for women between ages 12 and 24 years and rose by 60 percent in women ages 25 to 34 years, compared to similar-aged non-pregnant women.
  • In contrast, less than two percent of strokes for women between ages 35 to 55 were associated with being pregnant.

Steven Warach, MD, is medical director of Seton’s Stroke Institute, part of Ascension, the largest nonprofit health system in the U.S. and the world’s largest Catholic health system. He said this study is significant because it hones in on stroke risks by comparing pregnant with non-pregnant women – something prior studies haven’t done. Previous research shows that being older is associated with a higher risk of pregnancy-related stroke.

The “why” behind pregnancy-related stroke

Pregnancy-associated stroke affects about 34 of 100,000 pregnancies. That makes it pretty unusual, but not worth dismissing. Stroke is the No. 5 cause of death in the United States, according to the American Heart Association.

Ascension Seton OB-GYN John Gianopoulos, MD, says it’s rare for young and healthy pregnant women to have a stroke. The most common reasons are because of high blood pressure, a blood clot or abusing drugs like cocaine.

“A young, healthy pregnant woman who doesn’t do drugs and doesn’t have an underlying medical condition like lupus or severe diabetes, has low risk of stroke in pregnancy,” he said. “However, if you compare pregnant women to non-pregnant women, the risk is higher because of things that can happen during pregnancy.”

Preeclampsia, which is characterized by high blood pressure and happens in about one out of 20 pregnancies, can raise stroke risks. And, pregnancy generally makes your blood clot more often, so you’re less likely to bleed out. Hormone levels might also raise stroke risks during pregnancy.

As for why younger women may have an increased risk of pregnancy-related stroke, it could be because older women tend to have more stroke risks factors and are thus told not to get pregnant. That might be making pregnant older women a bit healthier than younger pregnant women, according to study authors.

According to the study, women with pregnancy-related stroke had fewer typical stroke risk factors such as high blood pressure and diabetes than similar-aged women with non-pregnancy-related strokes.

For most people, high blood pressure, diabetes, smoking or heart issues like an irregular heart beat boost stroke risks, Warach said. Medicines can help control those problems, but things like healthy diet and regular exercise can help decrease risk.

How I prevent a stroke during pregnancy?

If you’re pregnant, it’s important to seek prenatal care because women can develop diabetes and high blood pressure during and after pregnancy, Warach said. Your OB-GYN can help identify possible any possible risks early on.

“Get checked to see if you have high blood pressure or high cholesterol or a heart problem like an irregular heart beat because there are medicines to treat that and they significantly reduce the risk of stroke and heart attack,” Warach said.

If you’re diabetic, keep tabs on your hemoglobin A1c levels and consult your doctor for treatment, Gianopoulos said.

“If you’re planning to get pregnant, have a medical assessment to make sure you’re in the best possible shape before becoming pregnant to make sure you don’t have an underlying medical condition that could affect your health during pregnancy.” For helpful information about having a healthy pregnancy and ways to avoid potential problems, visit the CDC’s website.