Over the last three decades, the U.S. has seen pregnancy-related deaths rise nearly 140%, and heart disease continues to be the leading cause. Furthermore, women who have prenatal complications, such as high blood pressure or gestational diabetes, have a significantly higher risk of heart disease and stroke later in life, yet many are not getting the care they need.

According to the National Collaborative for Infants & Toddlers (NCIT), an advocacy collaborative working to pass policies that make it possible for all expectant parents, infants, and toddlers to thrive, the U.S. is in the midst of a maternal health crisis. The American Heart Association (AHA) recently issued a similar statement regarding adverse pregnancy outcomes.

“Health care professionals and the public often think of heart disease as a man’s disease. While heart disease is also the leading cause of death for women, fewer than 50% of women identify it as such. This is creating a dangerous situation for women, especially during higher-risk periods of their life, as their symptoms often go undiagnosed and untreated,” says Dr. Sadiya S. Khan, one of the statement’s authors. “As adverse pregnancy outcomes become increasingly common, it’s important for women to be aware of their risk for heart disease, the actions they can take to lower their risk if they experience pregnancy complications, and for birth justice policy interventions to take place that will improve their care during their pregnancy, and throughout their lifetimes.”

Many women face significant barriers in accessing primary care after delivery. Up to 40% of women lack postpartum care. Only about 18% to 25% of postpartum patients with pregnancy complications or chronic health conditions see a primary care clinician within 6 months of delivery. Women of color, and those in rural areas, are disproportionately impacted by barriers to care that make them vulnerable to further health complications.

According to NCIT, policy interventions such as expanded Medicaid coverage for 12 months postpartum in all states, expanded income eligibility for health insurance programs, paid family and medical leave, community-based doulas, and evidence-based home visiting programs can help promote ethnic, racial, and socioeconomic birth equity, helping ensure that all expectant and new parents can receive insurance, care, and the support they need to thrive.

Also, the AHA’s Go Red for Women initiative supports women in all stages of life and pregnancy. Women should know their heart disease risks, and come to their doctors’ appointments prepared to discuss their personal and family health history and other factors that could impact their chance of a healthy pregnancy. Women can also proactively manage their heart disease risk factors during pregnancy and after delivery using the AHA’s Life’s Essential 8 cardiovascular health metrics as a framework. These include eating better, being more active, quitting tobacco, getting healthy sleep, managing weight, controlling cholesterol, managing blood sugar, and managing blood pressure.

“Stemming the tide of this maternal health crisis is vital for families, and it starts with bringing light to the tremendous need for better delivery of care to moms and soon-to-be moms with a focus on heart health,” says Dr. Khan.