Number of Births Increases Heart Disease Risk

A large Swedish study of 1.3 million women ages 50 and older found that a woman's increased risk for heart disease and stroke as she gets older may be linked to the number of births she's had. According to the study results, women who gave birth twice had the lowest risk of future cardiovascular disease, while women who had given birth five or more times had a 60 percent increased risk of having a heart attack or stroke in the future. (women with no, or one or three births had approximately a 10 percent greater risk, and women with four births had a 30 percent higher future risk of heart disease).

The study, which followed the women for 23 years, showed that during that time there were more than 65,000 heart disease-related events, including heart attacks and strokes.

Although similar studies looking at the link between the number of births and a woman's later risk for heart disease had had conflicting results, the Swedish study is the first large study to examine these issues. 

According to the researchers, even taking into account common pregnancy complications, such as high blood pressure and pregnancy-related diabetes, didn't explain the connection between the number of births a woman's had and her future risk for cardiovascular disease.

Because pregnancy leads to changes in how blood flows in and through the blood vessels, which can change the risk for heart disease and stroke, Erik Ingelsson, M.D., Ph.D., associate professor of epidemiology at Karolinska Institutet in Stockholm, and one of the researchers of the study, says that a better understanding of these changes may lead to a better understanding of the development of heart disease and stroke in women.

Staying Heart Healthy

Heart disease is the leading cause of death in the U.S. in both men and women and, according to the American Heart Association, the lifetime risk of having heart disease after the age of 40 is two in three men and more than one in two women. You can reduce your risk for heart disease by making some changes to your lifestyle, including:

  • Quitting smoking
  • Lowering your total cholesterol levels: Try to achieve a goal of less than 200 mg/dl
  • Reducing high blood pressure. High blood pressure makes your heart and kidneys work harder, raising your risk for heart failure, heart attack, stroke and kidney disease. Strive for a blood pressure reading of 120/80 mmHG or lower
  • Maintaining a healthy body weight
  • Sticking to a regular exercise program of at least 30 minutes a day, most days of the week