Heart Health for Women
Before November 2011, the annual “Go Red For Women” heart health campaign was not an issue I paid much attention to. But that was before I experienced a heart attack and quadruple bypass.
It’s been said that experience is a great teacher, except for the fact that the lesson comes after the experience. With heart disease, that’s a really ugly course of events. So in the interest of saving a woman or two the unpleasantness of my experience, here’s a short women’s heart health lesson from cardiologist Dr. Robert T. Martin – who discussed the incidence of women’s cardiac issues, the symptoms, and the risk factors with me in 2012 while I was recovering from my heart disease issue.
“Heart disease is everywhere and it’s killing people right and left – and it’s killing women …the thing that we miss is that coronary heart disease or cardiovascular disease is the number one killer in America in women … We haven’t done a good enough job as physicians getting that word out,” said Martin.
Martin continued, “If you look at the top 10 things that kill women every year in our country, heart disease is number one … our colleagues in the field of women’s health do a great job with PAP and pelvic exams and mammograms … but in America, a woman dies about every minute from cardiovascular disease.”
“…Time is of the essence for getting the word out – it’s a message we need to get out and we need to get it out rapidly,” said Martin. “The message is that there are risk factors that predispose you for coronary artery disease and there are symptoms. And, that if we target on these risk factors – who’s at risk and the subtle symptoms that can be present in women, then maybe we can impact that number and maybe we can do something to save someone.
Martin explained that until the mid-70s, most heart disease studies had been done in men, so the stereotype heart attack symptom was the crushing chest pain that radiated to the shoulder and arms and up the neck. But, he further noted, the last 20 years was a learning process that established that the symptoms in women can be completely different than the male stereotype.
“They (symptoms) may be as subtle as just some discomfort in their jaw and neck, or just present as nausea, a sweaty, clammy feeling, just as fatigue or shortness of breath – or just not feeling right. It can feel like indigestion … I have a lady that’s a few years younger than me, 45 years old, and she’s been increasing her medication for reflux and taking more over-the-counter preparations for gas – and it was her heart the whole time,” said Martin.
Martin said everybody has a role in improving cardiac health for women. “… We need to be more diligent as a health care industry in trying to draw those subtle symptoms out of women who are at risk … we want the ladies, as they learn – as they’re educated, to be a little more involved in their symptoms as well.” Martin said.
“Let me say it this way: you know, women in our society – they go to work, they come home, they take care of the kids and daddy and everybody else, and they’re standing by the sink washing the dishes at night and they’re feeling this discomfort in their chest or something, and they go, ‘Oh, that’s nothing,’” Martin said.
“They’re just taking care of everybody else and they put everybody else in front of them and then it just bites them – it comes back and it gets them, usually in a very drastic way … It’s important for women to be assertive and don’t take ‘no’ for an answer … Any discomfort is potentially cardiac disease, and I’d rather go over board checking
you for it than not go far enough and you have some bad event,” Martin cautioned.
Martin said that any symptoms, even if they’re not classic symptoms associated with male cardiac issues, are reasons for women have their cardiac health thoroughly evaluated. And, he said, having risk factors for heart disease is a serious reason to seek cardiac evaluation.
Typically, Martin said, there are eight risk factors:
-being a man or post-menopausal women;
-over the age of 55 in women (45 in men);
-high blood pressure;
-family history of heart disease;
-over ideal body weight by 30 + pounds.
Martin pointed out the risk factors that can’t be changed – such as gender, age, and genetics. But he also discussed those things women (and men) can change.
“You’ve got to know your numbers,” Martin emphasized. “At 140/90 (blood pressure), you need to be on treatment; ideal is 120/80. Elevated cholesterol – we can all do better on our diet, but for women who don’t even have coronary artery disease, their LDL numbers need to be less than 100. If you have known coronary artery disease, or diabetes, most would argue that your LDL cholesterol needs to be under 70 … HDL needs to be over 50.”
Smoking, of course, is about as unhealthy for cardiac health as it gets, and Martin also pointed to data that suggests less than 30 minutes of exercise five days a week is an independent risk for coronary artery disease in men and women.
As a case in point, I can’t strongly enough emphasize Martin’s advise to women to pay closer attention to their heart health – a little time out for a cardiac evaluation can save a woman serious recovery time from a heart attack, or worse.
Martin is a member of the Pierremont Cardiology group.
Marty Carlson is a columnist for the BPT.
She may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org