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Having More Children Can Increase Risk Of Heart Failure, Research Finds

Women who have had multiple pregnancies could be a greater risk of heart failure later in life, new research has found.

Mother-of-five Patricia Keating has always described herself as being "on the go".

For several years, she managed episodes of feeling tight in her chest and having an irregular heart beat, but nothing was ever picked up.

"One day, I was at a shopping centre and got very short of breath ... I went home and drove myself to the doctors," she said.

Keating ended up in hospital, and was diagnosed with stiff heart syndrome -- one of two main types of heart failure.

Patricia Keating was diagnosed with stiff heart syndrome. Photo: 10 News First

Research from the Baker Heart and Diabetes Institute in Melbourne looked into why women are twice as likely as men to develop the condition, and found those who have been pregnant at least three times had more severe symptoms.

Lead researcher Dr Anna Beale said the results add to "growing evidence" that pregnancies play a role.

"There’s a huge amount of stress on the heart during pregnancy. It has to increase the flow through the heart by about 30 to 50 percent, and, as well, it leads to changes to the blood vessels," Beale said. 

 "This could certainly play a role in terms of contributing to scarring of the heart and development of later cardiovascular disease."

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Stiff heart syndrome represents 50 percent of heart failure in the community, and occurs when healthy heart tissue is replaced by protein deposits called amyloids that can affect the way electrical signals move through the heart.

This can lead to an abnormal heart beat and faulty heart signals.

"Given there’s an increasing rate of obesity, which is a strong risk factor for it, we’re seeing more and more cases," Beale said. 

The syndrome typically develops in older women, with shortness of breath from minimal exertion being a common sign. But Beale said some symptoms --- such as high blood pressure -- can develop soon after pregnancy.

Photo: 10 News First

However, she said the research shouldn't dissuade women from having more children.

"The message is that women may be more likely to develop the syndrome if they have had lots of children, but there are things we can do to prevent that -- including exercising, keeping a healthy weight and managing their blood pressure," she said.

Closer long-term cardiovascular follow-up would also be "appropriate" for at-risk women, including those who are diabetic, obese or have high blood pressure, Beale added.

For Keating, who took part in the research, the findings were an "another piece of information"  that woman and GPs should know about.

Contact the author: ebrancatisano@networkten.com.au