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Women's Health: Migraines during pregnancy may signal increased heart and stroke risk

Older pregnant women who have these headaches need to be monitored carefully, researcher says

Pregnant women who suffer from migraines may be at increased risk for having a stroke or heart attack, according to a large American study.

Dr. Cheryl Bushnell of Duke University in Durham, N.C., examined a database of nearly 17 million pregnancy-related hospital discharges from 2000 to 2003. Among those, there were almost 34,000 women with a history of migraine headaches, with women older than 35 being twice as likely to have migraines as those younger than 20.

Women with migraines were 19 times more likely to have a stroke, five times more likely to have a heart attack and three times more likely to have a blood clot in the lungs than women without migraines.

Factors that increase the risk for heart attacks and strokes — such as diabetes, high blood pressure and smoking — were also more common in women who had migraine attacks during pregnancy.

Bushnell cautions that the data are preliminary and need to be verified in further studies, but she says they do suggest a link between migraines and vascular, or blood vessel, diseases during pregnancy. Moreover, the observations tally with research on older women that suggests migraines accompanied by visual warning signs called an aura are associated with strokes and heart disease.

She notes that older pregnant women seem to be at greater risk, likely because they may have already developed risk factors for heart disease.

“If (pregnant women) have risk factors and they have migraines, we should really be watching these women closely as they proceed through pregnancy to make sure that they don’t have a vascular complication.”