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Pregnancy is often a joyous time in a woman’s life, but having a baby also can put a large amount of stress on the body.

In some instances, healthy pregnant women can develop a heart condition that if not caught in time, can be fatal.

Peripartum cardiomyopathy, a type of heart failure that develops during pregnancy or in the postpartum period, often mimics the discomforts of pregnancy — shortness of breath, fatigue and swelling — especially in the feet and ankles.

Dr. Cheryl Short, of Obstetrical & Gynecological Associates in Valparaiso and on staff at Porter Regional Hospital, said diagnosis also can be delayed because these symptoms are similar to those experienced in other conditions, such as preeclampsia or a pulmonary thromboembolism.

According to the American Heart Association, peripartum cardiomyopathy affects about 1,000 to 1,300 women in the United States each year. Women usually receive a diagnosis during the last month of pregnancy or within five months of delivery.

Currently, more American women are dying of pregnancy-related complications than any other developed country in the world. The United States is the only developed country that has seen its mortality rate of pregnancy-related deaths increase.

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, peripartum cardiomyopathy is now estimated to cause about 11 percent of maternal deaths in the United States.

“It is relatively rare, but very important to be aware of when taking care of a woman who is pregnant or recently delivered,” said Dr. Jay Shah, director of the echocardiography lab and Heart Valve Center in the Porter Health Care System.

Shah, who is also a member of the Northwest Indiana American Heart Association’s Speaker’s Bureau, said other symptoms most often experienced include increased urination at night and the feeling of the heart racing or skipping beats.

“It can be difficult to distinguish, which is why it is important to discuss anything you are feeling during and after pregnancy with your doctor,” he said.

There is no definitive cause of peripartum cardiomyopathy, though recent research has indicated there may be a genetic component. A woman’s heart pumps up to 50 percent more blood during pregnancy, and researchers believe the extra stress placed on the heart, combined with other risk factors, play a role in who develops the condition.

Short said risk factors include age (older than 30), African-American descent, obesity, pregnancy with multiple fetuses, maternal cocaine abuse, long-term tocolytic therapy with terbutaline used to treat airway issues, pre-existing cardiac disease, and a history of preeclampsia, eclampsia or postpartum hypertension.

With advanced treatment and increasing awareness in the United States, survival rates have jumped to as high as 90 percent. Nearly half of women experience fully restored heart function, while others live with improved but not restored function. Some must undergo heart transplants in severe cases.

Shah said certain lifestyle habits can decrease a person’s risk of developing peripartum cardiomyopathy.

“Do not smoke or drink alcohol, eat a well-balanced diet rich in fruits and vegetables, and get regular exercise and proper sleep,” he said.