Cardiovascular disease is the number one cause of maternal death in the U.S., according to The American Heart Association. That's why it's critical for expectant and new mothers to be mindful of their heart health before, during and after pregnancy.

During pregnancy, a woman's heartbeat doesn't just beat for her, said Dr. Julie Master, a cardiologist at Monmouth Medical Center.

Pregnancy can be looked at as a stress test on a woman's heart. During the nine months, the woman's heart has to work twice as hard to nourish the needs of the growing baby.

Master said having a pregnancy-related cardiac complication can double or even triple a woman's risk for a cardiovascular event later in life.

During pregnancy, there are drastic increases in blood flow that put extra strain on a woman's heart. There are hormonal changes that can also affect a woman's blood pressure, Master said.

Stress on the heart can also cause preeclampsia. This is usually a post-pregnancy complication characterized by high blood pressure and signs of damage to another organ usually either the liver or kidneys.

There can be changes in hormones that increase a woman's propensity to form clots, not to mention transient spikes in blood sugar levels, in which a pregnant woman can develop pregnancy-induced diabetes.

While pregnant, Master said women need to be wary of symptoms of cardiac-related illnesses. These include severe foot swelling, fainting, severe fatigue, chest pains, extremely fast heartbeats, and severe shortness of breath. Women should immediately contact their physician or head to the nearest emergency room to get checked out.

Even if something doesn't feel right after giving birth, Master said don't ignore the symptoms. Seek help.

Master said almost 30% of women have pregnancy complications such as a premature baby, preeclampsia, and elevated blood pressure during pregnancy. "We're finding out that those complications which are of higher risk of having heart disease in the future. It's almost like having a window into the future," she said.

Any complication during pregnancy can double a woman's risk of having a cardiovascular disease later in life, Master said. For example, if a woman had gestational diabetes (diabetes during pregnancy), her risk of developing diabetes is seven times more likely during her lifetime. That's a major risk factor for heart disease.

If a woman has preeclampsia, she has four times the risk of developing high blood pressure later in life.

Master said whether a woman develops a spike in blood pressure after giving birth or even if everything goes fine, it's still a good idea to get checked out by a doctor or cardiologist to prevent any risk of heart disease in the future.

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