CHICAGO – In her last trimester, in the midst of dealing with family and work issues as well as preparing for a new baby, Michelle Emebo felt stressed.
“I didn’t realize how much it was impacting me until I went to see my health care provider and my blood pressure was up,” she said.
Doctors monitored her high blood pressure, which stuck around even after her daughter’s birth. Postpartum depression contributed to a tough time getting back on track toward a healthier lifestyle, said the 36-year-old Tinley Park, Illinois, resident.
As a clinical researcher, Emebo knew this put her at risk for even more serious cardiovascular diseases. So she revamped her life, focusing on nutrition and exercise to work on pregnancy-related weight gain that contributed to her high blood pressure. She lost about 75 pounds, all in an effort to not be reliant on medication and prep for a healthier potential second pregnancy.
“It was stressful for me,” she said.
According to a study published Dec. 16 in the Journal of the American Heart Association, Black women have the highest risk of pregnancy-related heart problems, even when adjusting for socioeconomic differences.
Researchers reviewed health records for 46 million hospitalizations of pregnant or postpartum women between 2007 and 2017. They found that Black women were 57% more likely to have a stroke, 45% more likely to die in the hospital and 23% more likely to have a heart attack.
In December, the federal Department of Health and Human Services announced a plan to improve maternal health that includes getting blood pressure under control for 80% of reproductive-age women.
Right now, according to HHS, about 9% of all women of reproductive ages — considered ages 20 to 44 — and 18% of Black women in this age group, have hypertension, or chronically high blood pressure. This puts them at higher risk for pregnancy complications such as preeclampsia, heart attack, postpartum bleeding and kidney failure. Among these women, 17% are unaware they have hypertension. The agency says hypertensive disorders are responsible for 7% of pregnancy-related deaths in the U.S.
Illinois officials have been monitoring significant maternal health disparities among Black women, who are six times more likely to die in Illinois from pregnancy-related conditions. The reasons behind this are layered, experts say, but include socioeconomic factors that can create barriers to care and explicit and implicit bias within the health care industry.