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Preeclampsia is high blood pressure that occurs during pregnancy and the postpartum period, affecting both the mother and unborn baby. It is associated with a number of serious effects, including kidney dysfunction, swelling of hands, feet and face, dizziness, headaches and difficulties with vision.

In severe cases, the pregnancy needs to be delivered early. Preeclampsia can also lead to maternal and infant death.

The impact

Preeclampsia is the most common serious medical complication of pregnancy, affecting one in every 10 women during pregnancy.1 Every year, 10,000 women in Australia are diagnosed with preeclampsia. Worldwide, around 76,000 pregnant women die each year from preeclampsia and related disorders.2

The risk

The exact cause of preeclampsia is not known, but it is thought to occur when there is a problem with the placenta. The blood vessels of the placenta fail to develop normally, and toxic proteins are released into the mother’s bloodstream. This leads to constriction of the blood vessels and damage to their lining, which causes blood vessel dysfunction.

This process can affect many other bodily systems, including the circulatory system, kidneys, brain, liver and lungs.

Women who may be more at risk include those who:

  • are pregnant for the first time
  • have pre-existing high blood pressure
  • have a family history of preeclampsia
  • have diabetes
  • are pregnant with more than one baby.

The risks associated with preeclampsia are not confined to just pregnancy. Women diagnosed with preeclampsia have over twice the long-term risk of heart disease and stroke compared to women without.3

Post-pregnancy women who have had preeclampsia have a 2.4 times increased risk of having high blood pressure in life, twice the risk of stroke or heart attack, and 1.5 times the risk of death. Even more concerningly, we're finding the disease occurs prematurely, up to a decade earlier.

Dr Clare Arnott
Cardiologist and HRI researcher

What is HRI doing?

HRI is tackling the urgent problem of cardiovascular diseases such as preeclampsia from a broad range of research angles. Our Vascular Immunology Group is currently investigating ways that provide for safer prolongation of pregnancy without premature delivery. In addition, they are examining the role of aspirin and its effect in preeclampsia prevention. In partnership with research groups in the USA and Sweden, the team is also investigating the effect and safety of the new treatments targeting the placenta, for use in early severe preeclampsia.

Cardiologist Dr Clare Arnott is a Visiting Scientist with HRI who has established NSW’s first Women’s Heart Clinic that focuses on gender-specific risk factors such as hypertensive disorders of pregnancy. The clinic approaches care from a holistic angle, including lifestyle and dietary modification, and general care, and is overseen by female physicians. Dr Arnott leverages her science research for her initiative using HRI’s state-of-the-art facilities.


  1. Pearls: Preventing preeclampsia
  2. Kuklina EV et al. Hypertensive Disorders and Severe Obstetric Morbidity in the United States. Obstet Gynecol 2009; 113:1299-306.
  3. Brown MC et al. Cardiovascular disease risk in women with pre-eclampsia: systematic review and meta-analysis. Eur J Epidemiol. 2013 Jan;28(1):1-19.

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