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The Heart of the Matter

by Allegra Tiver

While awareness has grown, there’s still work to be done to educate women on their No. 1 health risk.

More deaths in New Jersey occur from cardiovascular diseases and stroke than anything else—even after combining all the deaths from various types of cancer. But do you know the symptoms? How about the risk factors? And are you doing what you can to prevent it for yourself and your loved ones?

As more research has been done during the past two decades, it has become clear that heart disease is much larger than a men’s health issue. In fact, more females than males have died from it in each of those 20 years, according to statistics from the American Heart Association (AHA) in Robbinsville.

An estimated 43 million women in the U.S. are currently affected by heart disease, the AHA reports. It causes 1 in 3 women’s deaths each year and kills approximately one woman every minute—yet women make up less than a quarter of participants in all heart-related studies.

Through its “Go Red For Women” national education initiative, the AHA has raised significant awareness, with 23 percent more women recognizing heart disease as their No. 1 health threat than they did a decade ago. The agency has also gained legislation to help end gender disparities.

Meanwhile, local doctors work on the front line with patients and families to reverse the “man’s disease” myth, encourage women to seek early medical attention and empower communities toward a heart-healthy lifestyle.

Recognize the signs
Starting conversations around how cardiovascular disease presents itself in women versus in men is an important step in educating the public. Without knowing what to look for, ladies may have no indication they are even in danger, may not seek medical help and may, therefore, be less likely to receive appropriate treatment.

“A lot of women can experience heartburn, and it can be passed off as a stomach issue, but it can really be secondary to a heart issue, particularly if these symptoms are related to physical exertion or emotional upset, and especially if these symptoms are not relieved with antacids or other heartburn-relieving medications,” says Dr. Renee Bullock-Palmer, director of The Women’s Heart Center at Deborah Heart and Lung Center, which hosts women’s health fairs with screenings and doctor meet-and-greets.

“Women might not have chest pressure, but shortness of breath could be a sign of trouble,” Bullock-Palmer adds. “What should alert women is when this happens during something they previously did effortlessly, like walking up stairs, or they notice it when they are emotionally upset.”

Other symptoms women might experience with cardiovascular issues include neck and back pain, nausea, abdominal pain and feeling light-headed.

Know your risks
Whether genetics or lifestyle, becoming more aware of what puts you at risk also puts you in a better place to handle potential heart issues. The earlier in life you can find out this information, the more equipped you’ll be in preventing problems in the first place.

“You want to look at your family history,” explains Bullock-Palmer, whose patients range in age from 20s to 90s. “For example, if your grandparents, your mom or dad, or your siblings died prematurely, you would have more reason for concern.

“Tobacco smoking, obesity, diabetes, hypertension, high blood pressure, high cholesterol and not being active all put people at higher risk for heart disease,” Bullock-Palmer adds.

Ninety percent of women have one or more risk factors for developing heart disease, according to AHA statistics.

Finding out your “numbers”—i.e. body mass index, blood sugar, blood pressure, cholesterol—can be done by making an appointment for a physical examination with your primary care physician. During the visit, you can consult your doctor for guidance on safe ways to stay active based on your individual risk factors.

Your heart is a house
Visualizing the living, beating, muscular hub in your body as a familiar everyday construction such as your house makes the very complex organ much easier for people to understand, Bullock-Palmer finds.

“I tell patients, ‘The plumbing is represented by the blood vessels in your heart, the electrical wires are represented by your nerves causing the heart to beat, and the structure of the house is represented by the walls and valves of the heart.’”

Simplified this way, maintaining this most essential organ seems somehow more straightforward. If you don’t tend to your plumbing, wiring and walls, your heart is not going to be a happy place to live.

No matter how your housekeeping has been to this point, taking steps toward tidiness can increase your sense of well-being and longevity.

Cardio checklist
Since cardiovascular disease is multi-factorial, there are several things to keep in mind to effectively create and maintain a lifestyle that supports heart health.

“In women less than 40 years old who have a heart attack, the most common contributing cause is smoking,” says Dr. Rozy Dunham, a cardiologist at Associated Cardiovascular Consultants/Lourdes Cardiology Services. “Quitting smoking or never starting is the best thing they can do.

“Sedentary lifestyle is also a huge risk factor,” Dunham explains. “People should be getting 30 minutes of moderate-level exercise most days of the week, and it can be split up into 10 minute increments.”

As simple as it sounds, creating such a routine is a huge step in maintaining a normal body mass index, or BMI, which Dunham asserts is among the most important pieces of cardiovascular health. Less than 25, she says, would be optimal.

Another aspect of maintaining a healthy BMI is eating a healthy diet. The AHA recommends nutrient-rich foods that have vitamins, minerals and fiber but are lower in calories. This means moving toward vegetables, fruits, whole-grain products, fat-free or low-fat dairy products, and fish—and moving away from processed foods containing saturated fat, trans fat, sodium, cholesterol and sugar.

By taking charge of your BMI, you are already helping to normalize your blood pressure, cholesterol and blood sugar, Dunham explains, and lower your heart disease risk. Between 60 to 70 percent of people in the U.S. are either overweight or obese, the AHA reports, and therefore at greater risk for high blood pressure, high cholesterol and diabetes.

Other unique factors have also been found to put women at higher risk for heart disease, Dunham says. These include post-menopausal hormone replacement therapy, and pregnancy-related complications such as gestational diabetes and pre-eclampsia.

Emotional component
Aside from the To-Do and Not-To-Do lists, patients and families dealing with a cardiovascular disease diagnosis or going through treatments or care inevitably have certain emotions to process.

“Often depression is involved and they are afraid,” Dunham says. “We try to give them the reassurance they need, as well as testing, in order for them to feel that it’s safe to get into an exercise program.”

Supervised cardiac rehabilitation is offered at a number of gyms, and hospitals have regimented programs, Dunham says. Having specific goals to reach, and a nursing staff and physicians on their side, helps alleviate anxiety for people.

Spread the wordB A substantial growth in grassroots movements has been seen since AHA’s “Go Red For Women” began in 2004. Enrollment has grown from 395,000 to 1,751,512 and the number of annual “Go Red” luncheons and events jumped from 65 to 1,377. Hits on the website are up nearly 200 percent.

Among the keys to improving awareness, Dunham believes, is gender-specific care established by hospital systems and groups of physicians.

“There needs to be a women’s health clinic that focuses on preventive care just for them,” says Dunham, noting that is on the horizon at Lourdes. “Once women realize they need to learn their risks and get checked out, these health centers will be there, and tailored just to their needs.”


American Heart Association
1 Union St., Suite 301
(609) 223-3717

Associated Cardiovascular Consultants
Seven locations throughout South Jersey
(856) 428-4100

Deborah Heart and Lung Center
200 Trenton Road
Browns Mills
(609) 621-2080

Published (and copyrighted) in the Art of Living Well pull-out section of Suburban Family Magazine, Volume 4, Issue 12 (February, 2014).
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