After years of struggling with repeated miscarriages and fertility treatments, including in vitro fertilization (IVF), Joanna Brody was thrilled when she finally conceived on her own at the age of 43even considering the increased risk of health problems associated with pregnancy after age 40. Still, the former marathon runner was in good health and exercised throughout her pregnancy, which was uneventful.
But two days after returning home from the hospital after her daughter’s birth (she also had a 6-month-old adopted son), she woke up feeling like she couldn’t breathe. “I thought I was having a panic attack due to the stress of taking care of two infants while building a new home,” Brody, now 45, recalls.
The next day, when she couldn’t catch her breath walking up a flight of stairs, she rushed to the emergency room. There, doctors discovered that her lungs were filled with fluid, a sign of peripartum cardiomyopathy, a potentially fatal condition that occurs when there’s damage to the heart, resulting in a weakened heart muscle that can’t pump blood efficiently. While it occurs in only about 1 in every 1,300 deliveries, it’s most common in older women, especially those, like Brody, who are over the age of 40.
The number of women giving birth into their 40s and 50s and beyond is at record highs, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. In 2007, 105,071 women aged 40-44 gave birth, the highest rate since 1968; the birth rate for women 45 to 54 was 7,349, an increase of 5% in just one year.
“The numbers have really skyrocketed over the last two decades, as research has increasingly shown that older women are able to carry pregnancies and deliver babies safely,” says Mark Sauer, MD, chief of reproductive endocrinology at Columbia University Medical Center and a leading researcher in this field.