What’s Making Pregnant Women Have More Strokes?

Stroke rates are up in women who are pregnant and who recently gave birth, a new study shows.
Researchers from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention looked at hospital-discharge data and found that between 1994-95 and 2006-07, the rate of stroke hospitalization rose 47% for expectant mothers, while climbing 83% for women in the three months after giving birth. The results are published in Stroke: Journal of the American Heart Association.
The absolute numbers are still low — 0.22 stroke hospitalizations per 1,000 deliveries both for expectant and new moms. But the sharp increases suggests a need “to tease out what’s going on,” Elena Kuklina, lead study author and a senior service fellow and epidemiologist at the CDC’s division for heart disease and stroke prevention, tells the Health Blog.
The likely culprit: women getting pregnant are increasingly likely to have other risk factors for stroke, such as obesity, high blood pressure, congenital heart disease or diabetes. Among the women hospitalized for stroke before giving birth, for example, 17% had high blood pressure in 2006-07, compared to 11% in 1994-95. But the exact role of those factors needs to be studied, says Kuklina. And there needs to be more research on how to treat pregnant women at higher risk of stroke.
Interestingly, the rate of strokes occurring right around when a woman’s baby was delivered was unchanged at 0.27 hospitalizations per 1,000 deliveries. It’s not clear why, but it could be that women already in the hospital to deliver a baby are being carefully monitored and, if they’re at risk, treated to prevent a stroke before it occurs.
Kuklina suggests women planning to conceive visit a doctor ahead of time to get a general health check and discuss any risk factors and how they can be reversed by diet, exercise and other lifestyle factors. Women who are overweight or obese, for example, will likely be told to get closer to a healthy weight before they get pregnant and to gain less weight when they are pregnant.
What happens to a woman during pregnancy can serve as a preview of what medical problems she may face later on.