The placenta and preeclampsia: villain or victim?

Am J Obstet Gynecol. 2022 Feb;226(2S):S954-S962. doi: 10.1016/j.ajog.2020.10.024. Epub 2021 Mar 24.


Preeclampsia is a disease whose characterization has not changed in the 150 years since the cluster of signs associated with the disorder were first described. Although our understanding of the pathophysiology of preeclampsia has advanced considerably since then, there is still little consensus regarding the true etiology of preeclampsia. As a consequence, preeclampsia has earned the moniker "disease of theories," predominantly because the underlying biological mechanisms linking clinical epidemiologic findings to observed organ dysfunction in preeclampsia are far from clear. Despite the lack of cohesive evidence, expert consensus favors the hypothesis that preeclampsia is a primary placental disorder. However, there is now emerging evidence that suboptimal maternal cardiovascular performance resulting in uteroplacental hypoperfusion is more likely to be the cause of secondary placental dysfunction in preeclampsia. Preeclampsia and cardiovascular disease share the same risk factors, preexisting cardiovascular disease is the strongest risk factor (chronic hypertension, congenital heart disease) for developing preeclampsia, and there are now abundant data from maternal echocardiography and angiogenic marker studies that cardiovascular dysfunction precedes the development of preeclampsia by several weeks or months. Importantly, cardiovascular signs and symptoms (hypertension, cerebral edema, cardiac dysfunction) predominate in preeclampsia at clinical presentation and persist into the postnatal period with a 30% risk of chronic hypertension in the decade after birth. Placental malperfusion caused by suboptimal maternal cardiovascular performance may lead to preeclampsia, thereby explaining the preponderance of cardiovascular drugs (aspirin, calcium, statins, metformin, and antihypertensives) in preeclampsia prevention strategies. Despite the seriousness of the maternal and fetal consequences, we are still developing sensitive screening, reliable diagnostic, effective therapeutic, or improvement strategies for postpartum maternal cardiovascular legacy in preeclampsia. The latter will only become clear with an acceptance and understanding of the cardiovascular etiology of preeclampsia.

Keywords: cardiovascular function; change in partner; etiology; ovum donation; parity; placentation; preeclampsia; spiral artery transformation; uterine Doppler.

Publication types

  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't
  • Review

MeSH terms

  • Cardiovascular Diseases / physiopathology*
  • Female
  • Humans
  • Parity
  • Placenta / blood supply
  • Placenta / physiopathology*
  • Placental Circulation / physiology
  • Placentation / physiology
  • Pre-Eclampsia / diagnosis
  • Pre-Eclampsia / physiopathology*
  • Pre-Eclampsia / prevention & control
  • Pregnancy
  • Pregnancy Complications, Cardiovascular / physiopathology
  • Vascular Resistance