The effects of preeclampsia appear to have an impact only during pregnancy and childbirth, but the condition actually affects a woman’s cardiovascular health for the rest of her life, researchers discovered in a new study. By describing how the body changes after preeclampsia, the present research points to a potential new treatment for women who experience this during pregnancy.
Preeclampsia affects between five and eight percent of pregnancies, putting the health of both mother and baby in danger. The cause of this condition is not completely understood, but for the most part researchers understand the underlying problem to be dysfunctional blood vessels supplying oxygen and nutrients to the placenta, causing high blood pressure. Preeclampsia usually occurs between middle to late pregnancy and six weeks after the baby is born. Key signs that signal a potential case of preeclampsia include:
Protein in the urine
Sudden weight gain
The present study, from scientists at Penn State and published in the journal Hypertension, began by looking at potential changes in blood vessels that occur after preeclampsia. Researchers recruited 24 study participants - half who had experienced preeclampsia and half who had normal, healthy pregnancies - to test the function of their blood vessels:
In response to acetylcholine, a neurotransmitter that directs blood vessel dilation, preeclamptic blood vessels reached just half of the dilation that healthy blood vessels achieved.
In response to angiotensin II, a hormone that increases blood pressure by inducing blood vessel constriction, preeclamptic blood vessels constricted more than healthy blood vessels.
In response to losartan, a blood pressure-lowering drug, researchers saw improved blood vessel function, but only in women who had experienced preeclampsia. The control group was not affected by the drug.
"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," explained Penn State’s Anna Stanhewicz, PhD. "This suggests that something happens during a preeclamptic pregnancy that permanently changes the way blood vessels function."
However, losartan may be an option for better treatment of existing heart disease and prevention of future problems. "By blocking that excessive constriction, we were able to functionally restore the dilation response,” Stanhewicz explained.
With a better understanding of the lifelong impact of preeclampsia, scientists and medical professionals can work together to address the problem appropriately.