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Stroke is a disease we associated with the elderly, but it's also a significant risk for young mothers. In the United States, 1 in 200 persons aged 65 or older has a stroke in any given year.

Gestational High Blood Pressure Almost as Risky as Preeclampsia

But the American Heart Association tells us that 1 in 300 women aged 20 to 39 has a stroke in any given year.

That figure jumps to 1 in 110 among women who have delivered a baby prematurely and who also had high  blood pressure during pregnancy. Pregnancy can be as great or greater risk factor for stroke as advanced age.

Not all women who get pregnant are at the same risk for stroke. The additional risk of stroke after an uncomplicated pregnancy is minimal. Women who have blood pressure of 140/90 or greater during the last trimester of pregnancy, however, have a 1 in 150 risk of suffering stroke over the next six years. Women who have a blood pressure of 140/90 during the last trimester of pregnancy and who deliver their child before the thirty-sixth week have the 1 in 110 chance of stroke within six years. The mother's age, however, makes big difference.

Women who are pregnant at ages 15 to 18 are at even greater risk of stroke—even in the their late teens and early twenties. Women who are over 35 and pregnant are also at greatest risk of stroke when they have problems with blood pressure during pregnancy. Very young mothers and relatively late mothers suffer the greatest cardiovascular risk. But these statistics do not account for the phenomena known as preeclampsia and eclampsia.

High Blood Pressure May Indicate an Condition Similar to Preeclampsia

There are several conditions related to high blood pressure during pregnancy:

  • Gestational hypertension refers to blood pressure readings over 140/90 during pregnancy.
  • Preeclampsia refers to blood pressure readings over 140/90 with stress on the kidneys resulting in loss of protein in the urine. A telltale sign of this condition is "pitting edema" of the hands, face, or feet, swelling under the skin that can be depressed with a gentle touch.
  • Severe preeclampsia involves blood pressure over 160/110.
  • Eclampsia refers to seizures caused by preeclampsia, and is potentially fatal to both mother and unborn child.

Symptoms usually appear only in the last month of pregnancy. Some researchers believe that preeclampsia and eclampsia result from general inflammation of the blood vessels in the placenta surrounding the baby in the uterus. There is a known relationship between this kind of inflammation and stroke. These recent findings suggest that the inflammation that causes preeclampsia and eclampsia may manifest itself as nothing more than high blood pressure during pregnancy, but still cause stroke up to six years later.

What should be done about gestational hypertension? Medical treatment is mandatory. Including magnesium-rich leafy greens, at least several servings a week, or taking a magnesium supplement, up to 600 mg a day, no more than 200 mg at a time, may also help.

  • Wang IK, Chang SN, Liao CC, Liang CC, Chang CT, Lin HH, Liu JH, Liu YL, Chuang FR, Hsu CY, Huang CC, Sung FC. Hypertensive Disorders in Pregnancy and Preterm Delivery and Subsequent Stroke in Asian Women: A Retrospective Cohort Study. Stroke. 2011 Jan 13. [Epub ahead of print]
  • Photo courtesy of lina smith by Flickr :