Pregnancy with heart disease now more common

February 11, 2013 4:55:39 PM PST
Women with heart disease have often been told they shouldn't get pregnant, and some undergo operations to make sure they don't. But that's not the case anymore.

Today, a growing number of women with heart disease are having babies thanks to changes in medicine.

A newborn baby has many trips to the doctor in the first few months of life. But this follow-up exam isn't for baby Conor. It's for his mom, Nikki Westphal, who gave birth in spite of having serious heart problems.

"A narrowed aorta and I also had my left atrium and my left ventricle stuck together, and it kind of made for blood kind of going back and forth more than it should," Westphal said.

The 34-year-old had to undergo open heart surgery while she was six months pregnant. And heart surgery on pregnant women is becoming more common.

"We're seeing a rise in this population," said Dr. Curt Daniels with Ohio State's Wexner Medical Center. "We're also seeing a rise in the complexity of the type of patients that we're seeing that are women with heart disease that want to get pregnant."

Westphal was born with heart problems, but a growing number of women develop them and still are able to survive childbirth. Over the age of 40, a woman's risk of heart disease nearly quadruples, yet they are one of the few age groups having more babies. The birth rate for women over 40 is the highest in nearly 50 years.

Improved monitoring during pregnancy and teams of specialists during delivery make it possible. But there are still risks. Daniels says if you were born with a heart problem or if there is a chance you've developed one, get it checked before you try to get pregnant.

"We sometimes could find an aneurysm. We sometimes could find that the heart muscle is weaker than we thought. We may find a hole inside the heart that the woman did not know still existed from previous surgery," Daniels said.

Problems like these may not keep you from having a baby, but knowing can help keep mother and her baby safer.

Doctors say a woman's heart is under more strain throughout her pregnancy, and during childbirth many women have a heart rate of 172 beats per minute -- 37 percent higher than a marathon runner. But the earlier doctors know the condition of your heart, the better your chances for a safe pregnancy.
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