CVH in pregnant women: Ample room for improvement


Cardiovascular disease is both common and chronic, and it remains the leading cause of death in women. Because it is a life-long condition, cardiovascular disease must be managed over the entire lifespan. In recognition of the important role of obstetricians and gynecologists in monitoring women’s health, the American Heart Association/American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists 2018 guidelines1 promoted the use of “Life’s Simple 7”2 for assessing cardiovascular health (CVH) in women.

Pregnant woman in doctor's office, Doctor Measuring Blood Pressure Vesnaandjic/E+/Getty Images

These seven metrics include diet, physical activity, smoking status, body mass index (BMI), blood pressure, total cholesterol, and fasting blood glucose levels. They have been shown to predict positive health outcomes in nonpregnant adults. However, until now, CVH had not been assessed in pregnant women.

Perak et al. recently performed the first cross-sectional study of the prevalence of CVH metrics in pregnant women using the AHA definition.3 Using data from the National Health and Nutrition Examination Surveys (NHANES), they used the Life’s Simple 7 metrics to assess CVH in 1,117 pregnant and 8,200 nonpregnant women in the United States aged 20-44 years. Each of the Life’s Simple 7 metrics was scored 0, 1, or 2 points, corresponding to a rating of poor, intermediate, or ideal, respectively. Thus, the total CVH score ranged from 0-14 points, with total scores of 0-7 indicating low CVH, 8-11 indicating moderate CVH, and 12-14 indicating high CVH.

The main study findings were that CVH in pregnant women in the United States was far from optimal, with only 5% having an ideal score, which was even worse than in nonpregnant women, of whom only 13% were scored as having ideal CVH. Ideal scores were observed for 0.1% of pregnant women for diet, 27% for physical activity, 39% for cholesterol levels, 51% for BMI, 78% for smoking, 90% for blood pressure, and 92% for fasting blood glucose. Physical activity and cholesterol levels appeared to be the major drivers of the lower CVH scores in pregnant women.

Dr. Charles Wong

Dr. Charles Wong

Although further studies are warranted to determine the relevance of CVH during pregnancy to outcomes for both mother and offspring, the study by Perak et al. is an important step toward the development of pregnancy-specific guidelines and definitions for CVH metrics. These are stated goals of the AHA/ACOG that will help promote CVH in women across their lifespans, but which have not been possible due to scant data.

Emerging data suggest that cumulative lifetime exposure is a significant factor in cardiovascular disease outcomes; therefore, earlier intervention would have a more significant impact. Just as gestational diabetes is a predictor of future type 2 diabetes, CVH earlier in a woman’s life predicts cardiovascular disease later in life.4-7 The best data in this regard come from genetic and other studies of hyperlipidemia, which suggest that lowering lipid levels before symptoms develop may prevent cardiovascular disease. In contrast, treatment of patients with clinically manifest disease neither offers a cure nor prevents the occurrence of most cardiovascular events.

It is a particularly salient point in this regard that there currently are no guidelines on treatment of hypercholesterolemia during pregnancy. Notably, the study by Perak et al. suggested that cholesterol levels may have a significant impact on CVH in pregnant women. There also is emerging data supporting the importance of controlling blood pressure across the lifespan,7,8 including during pregnancy.9

Dr. E. Albert Reece, vice president for medical affairs at the University of Maryland, Baltimore, and the John Z. and Akiko K. Bowers Distinguished Professor and dean of the school of medicine.

Dr. E. Albert Reece

For many women, their ob.gyn. is their primary care physician, and pregnancy is often the first time that a woman will have a substantial interaction with the health care system. The AHA/ACOG advisory panel described pregnancy as a “physiological stress test” for women that offers the opportunity to identify those at increased risk of cardiovascular disease.1

As pregnancy is a time when women particularly are motivated to improve their health,10 it also presents a valuable opportunity for physicians, including ob.gyns., to make a lifelong impact on the CVH of their patients through early identification, education, and intervention.

Dr. Charles Hong is the Melvin Sharoky, MD, Professor of Medicine and director of cardiovascular research in the department of medicine at the University of Maryland School of Medicine. Dr. E. Albert Reece, who specializes in maternal-fetal medicine, is executive vice president for medical affairs at the University of Maryland School of Medicine as well as the John Z. and Akiko K. Bowers Distinguished Professor and dean of the school of medicine. Neither physician had any relevant financial disclosures. Contact him at [email protected].


1. Circulation. 2018;137:e843–e852.

2. Circulation. 2010 Jan 20;121(4):586–613.

3. J Am Heart Assoc. 2020 Feb 17;9:e015123.

4. J Am Coll Cardiol. 2018 Sep 4;72(10):1141-56.

5. N Engl J Med. 2016 Dec 1;375:2144-53.

6. Nat Rev Cardiol. 2011 Nov 1;8(12):721-5.

7. J Am Coll Cardiol. 2019 Jul 23;74(3):330-41.

8. Circulation. 2020 Mar 2:141:725-7.

9. Circulation. 2013 Feb 12;127(6):681-90.

10. Nutrients. 2018 Aug 8. doi: 10.3390/nu10081032.

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