Sue had just turned 33 when the unthinkable happened. She was waiting in the customer service line at the store one morning, her young child in tow, when a heart attack struck out of nowhere.
Luckily, she made it to the hospital in time and is recovering with the help of regular appointments with a U-M cardiologist and rehabilitation program. But her heart attack, which came without any warning symptoms, changed her life forever. It also changed her attitudes about who gets heart disease.
I thought this was more of a mens condition, she says. Now, Im becoming more aware of how young people can have heart attacks, with no known history of cardiac disease, and how it can happen to anybody, including a lot of femalesmore than I had thought.
Sues story should help all women realize the danger they face from heart diseaseand the steps they can take to prevent itat any age, says cardiologist and assistant professor of internal medicine Claire Duvernoy.
Most women in this country perceive themselves as not threatened by cardiovascular disease, but the fact is that its the most common killer of women in the country, Duvernoy says. If you ask most women, theyll tell you that the major threat to their life and health is cancer, especially breast cancer. I dont want to downplay the significance of cancer, but more women die of heart disease in the United States than die of all forms of cancer combined.
Another thing that surprises many women, she continues, is that more women than men die of heart disease, and women who get heart disease often fare worse overall than men. These facts contradict the stereotype that heart problems are mostly a mans concern.
Worse still, such wrong impressions can escalate womens risk even more, Duvernoy warns. They may fail to take preventive steps, recognize symptoms, manage their other heart-damaging health conditions effectively or pursue the best treatment for a heart problem.
Early diagnosis and appropriate measures to stave off problems are key to evening the odds. Thats why the Health System offers its Preventive Cardiology Service, where women and men can be evaluated for their cardiovascular risk, prescribed a range of preventive strategies and treated. Women who prefer a female cardiologist may ask to be seen by one.
Part of the reason for the difference between heart disease death rates for women and men is the difference in life span. Women tend to develop serious heart problems about 10 years later than men do, but they live longer overall, and advanced age is a risk factor for heart disease.
So is menopausepossibly due in part to the fact that a womans level of estrogen, which seems to protect the cardiovascular system, decreases as she approaches and enters menopause. Duvernoys own research focuses on the effect of estrogen on blood flow in small blood vessels. Women who wish to enroll in her clinical trials of hormone replacement therapy and hormone alternatives can call (734) 769-7100, ext. 5425.
Women are also more likely than men to have the kind of chronic health problems, such as obesity,
diabetes and high blood pressure, that can harm the cardiovascular system over time. More girls and women are smoking at younger ages, posing a long-term risk to their heart. All of these factors can remove the heart-risk advantage that younger women have over men their age.
These co-morbidities, or existing conditions, not only help cause heart diseasethey can also make a woman who has heart disease harder to treat and less likely to do well after treatment. Once a womans been diagnosed with heart disease, she does not have as good a prognosis on average as a man of her age group who has been diagnosed, she says.
Part of the problem in American health care as a whole, Duvernoy says, is that doctors and other health care providers have the same skewed perceptions as women themselves. They may not be as quick to consider heart problems as a possible cause of a womans symptoms, or they may not treat a womans condition as aggressively as they would a mans.
Another problem involves actual differences in the way women experience, react to and report symptoms. For example, unlike Sue, women having heart attacks sometimes dont even realize whats happening to them. They may report their warning signs as general malaise, nausea, abdominal pain or excessive fatigue, which dont match the chest pain, gray color and sweatiness that are widely thought of as a heart attacks typical symptoms.
As a result, some women dont seek medical attention quickly enough, and when they do, they may not get checked quickly for a heart attack. That can hurt their chances; early identification and treatment of any heart problem is key to making the outcome as good as possible.
So, Duvernoy says, women must learn what to look for and to take symptoms seriously. The message for women should be: Be aware of your body. Pay attention to whats going on. Dont downplay your symptoms because you dont have time for this, she says. If you feel like somethings wrong, you need to seek medical attention immediately.
After a heart attack or other problem, its important for patients to get follow-up rehabilitation, including carefully planned exercise. But Duvernoy finds that women are less likely to follow through. Women have a lot more barriers to enrollment in rehab. They tend to be the caregiver in the family, and they dont think they have the time to go and do something for themselves because theyre taking care of their children, husbands or parents, she says. But rehab is very helpful in improving a womans prognosis and making her feel a lot better.
Preventive and follow-up care for heart disease have a lot in common, says Duvernoy. In general, she recommends that women follow these steps: