This is an archived article and the information in the article may be outdated. Please look at the time stamp on the story to see when it was last updated.

CHICAGO —More than half of young women in the U.S. have poor heart health before they conceive. And pregnancy impacts the heart in ways new mothers understand but other ways doctors are just beginning to realize.

They hope their findings improve the health of mothers and their babies.

Dr. Sadiya Khan is an assistant professor of medicine and preventive medicine at Northwestern.

“Oftentimes we start thinking about pregnancy health and pregnancy complications at that first prenatal visit, once someone becomes pregnant,” Khan said. “But we’re learning more and more that the risk factors levels before even becoming pregnant.”

With obesity, diabetes, high blood pressure rampant in this country, so too are factors that could impact a baby before a woman ever becomes pregnant.

“We know that nearly a third of pregnancy-related deaths are related to heart conditions or cardiovascular disease,” Khan said.

Just being pregnant adds weight to the heart’s pumping stress.

“When someone is pregnant, the heart is acting in overdrive to try to accommodate the growing baby,” Khan said.

Prior heart weakness coupled with enhanced pressure is a recipe for complications in many more women than previously realized.

“Less than 50 % of individuals had optimal or favorable heart health starting pregnancy,” Khan said. “These are very young individuals between 20 and 44.”

For expectant mothers that can translate to pre-eclampsia or pregnancy high blood pressure, pre-term delivery gestational diabetes, heart attack, stroke, or heart failure, conditions potentially deadly to mother and child. Poor heart health can also lead to long term damage for the child.

“Having poor health during pregnancy can actually be associated with the child having poor health during adolescence and adulthood,” Khan said. “So it will be something that impacts them throughout their life based on the environment in the uterus that they were exposed to.”

It’s a wake-up call for women to check their heart even at an age they think they are too young to worry about it.

“Unfortunately our heart health as a society is declining,” Khan said.

States that had highest Medicaid rates had poorer pre-pregnancy heart health. Study investigators say access to care is likely a major factor.