The Heart Foundation is calling for closer monitoring of women with a history of pre-eclampsia, with new research highlighting the potential risk the pregnancy complication poses to a mother's heart later in life.
Researchers at the Mayo Clinic in Minnesota have found women with a history of pre-eclampsia are more likely to face atherosclerosis - a hardening and narrowing of the arteries - much later in life.
"We've found that pre-eclampsia continues to follow mothers long after the birth of their child," said Professor Vesna Garovic at the Mayo Clinic's Division of Nephrology and Hypertension.
Using health records from the Rochester Epidemiology Project, the research team identified 40 post-menopausal women with histories of pre-eclampsia and 40 women with normal pregnancy histories.
Even without a history of cardiovascular events, the women who had pre-eclampsic pregnancies faced a higher risk of atherosclerosis during their postmenopausal years.
"This makes pre-eclampsia a pregnancy complication that extends well beyond the pregnancy itself," said Prof Garovic.
Women with pre-eclampsia have high blood pressure, which typically shows 20 weeks into the pregnancy.
It's estimated between five to 10 per cent of pregnant women in Australia suffer from the condition.
That equates to as many as 30,000 women every year.
The American Heart Association has already identified pre-eclampsia as both a risk factor for heart disease and stroke.
The issue is also of particular concern to Australia's Heart Foundation.
"Pregnancy is the ultimate stress test for the body. Basically when a woman's having a baby her blood volume increases by 30 to 50 per cent, her heart is working harder as the pregnancy advances so if there are any underlying issues they'll often appear or manifest in pregnancy," said Julie Anne Mitchell from the Heart Foundation.
Obstetrician Professor Gus Dekker at Adelaide University says the link between vascular complications during pregnancy, such as pre-eclampsia and gestational diabetes, and cardiovascular disease later in life has been known for some time.
"Our big query is; does the pre-eclampsia unmask the fact that you are at risk of these disorders anyway or does the pre-eclampsia have its own intrinsic add-on effect?" Professor Dekker said.
"The animal experience suggests that pre-eclampsia has a kind of second hit effect," Prof Dekker said.
Ms Mitchell said a woman who has had pre-eclampsia during pregnancy needs her blood pressure closely monitored post-pregnancy.
"The best that a GP or clinician can be doing now is to monitor those women on a regular basis," she said.