Lady Sybil Crawley—the feisty youngest sister of a wealthy British family on the PBS television series “Downton Abbey”—made her way into viewers’ hearts. Devotees of the show were shocked when, in a surprise twist, she died soon after giving birth. Lady Sybil died from high blood pressure during pregnancy (preeclampsia) that developed into a more serious condition called eclampsia in which high blood pressure causes potentially fatal seizures.
Unfortunately, this type of tragedy is not a distant memory from the early 1900s when “Downton Abbey” was set. Preeclampsia still causes too many deaths—or near deaths—in the U.S. each year. However, when diagnosed properly, preeclampsia is manageable.
Preeclampsia develops in about 5–8 percent of all pregnancies. Symptoms include headaches, nausea, vomiting, and excessive swelling of the feet, hands and face.
There are also invisible symptoms, such as damage to internal organs like the liver and kidneys. Preeclampsia occurs when a woman’s blood pressure rises too high (140/90 mmHg or above) during mid- to late-pregnancy (more than 20 weeks of gestation). The increased blood pressure limits the amount of blood that the baby receives and can slow down fetal growth. Babies born to women with preeclampsia are frequently smaller and weigh less than those born to women with normal blood pressure. Preeclampsia is often connected with other health conditions such as obesity, diabetes, kidney disease and a history of high blood pressure.
A woman’s age, race and where she lives can also increase the likelihood of developing preeclampsia. Women over age 40, black women and women from the southern U.S. also have an increased risk of developing high blood pressure during pregnancy. The reasons why Southern women have greater risk are not clear, but it may be linked to the prevalence of obesity and diabetes, especially in the Deep South.
It is important for expectant women and their families to know the symptoms of preeclampsia, talk openly with their doctors about their potential risks and speak up when something doesn’t feel right. May is Preeclampsia Awareness Month. Talk to the pregnant women in your life and learn about preeclampsia together.
Jessica C. Taylor, PhD, is the Senior Manager of Higher Education Programs at the American Physiological Society. She is a cardiovascular physiologist, the mother of one and hails from Mississippi.