Women’s Heart Health

courtesy stockimages via freedigitalphotos.net

courtesy stockimages via freedigitalphotos.net

The simple facts are enough to make any woman’s heart skip a beat.

Heart disease, stroke, and other cardiovascular diseases are the number one cause of death in American women, claiming more than 460,000 lives each year. That’s more than the next five causes of death combined, including all forms of cancer. According to a 2007 study by the American Heart Association, cardiovascular disease causes about one female death per minute.

“The lifetime risk of dying of cardiovascular disease is nearly one in three for women,” said Dr. Lori Mosca, a cardiologist working with the American Heart Association. “This underscores the importance of healthy lifestyles in women of all ages to reduce the long-term risk of heart and blood vessel diseases.”

While heart disease becomes more prevalent as people get older, even children need to take care of their heart health. “From the second you start eating food … you’re really affecting the plaque on the artery walls, so you really need to be conscious of that whether you’re 14 years old, 30 years old or 60 years old,” said Liz Adams, executive director of the Santa Barbara, San Luis Obispo, and Ventura County branches of the American Heart Association.

Getting the word out about the importance of early awareness of cardiovascular disease is a passionate cause for Santa Barbara County Supervisor Janet Wolf, who had a heart attack in 2004, at age 50, and has since gone on to train in the Woman-Heart Program at the Mayo Clinic to become a women’s heart health spokeswoman. Wolf testified in Congress on behalf of the Heart Disease Education, Research and Analysis, and Treatment (HEART) for Women Act, co-sponsored by Congresswoman Lois Capps, and is very active in the community as an advocate for greater awareness for women about heart disease. She emphasizes the importance of being aware of your family history (her father had triple bypass surgery in his 50s), as well as maintaining a healthy exercise program and diet.

“We need to work harder about letting people know about the increase of heart disease among women,” says Wolf. “We must be proactive.”

It’s also particularly important for women to be aware of their symptoms and take swift action when needed. “My gut assumption about what happens with women is we’re traditionally the caretakers, we’re the last ones to actually stop and say is there something wrong with me,” said Adams. “Instead we’re worried about our kids, our family, husband, and a lot of times women will start to feel pain in their chest–which for women tends to be more of a grasping anxiety feel than an actual elephant on the chest, which is what a man experiences–and so they think ‘oh it’s just stress, I’ll go to sleep and tomorrow morning I’ll be okay,’ and they don’t get immediate help like their male counterparts are doing.”

Both heart attacks (where a blood clot on the artery walls prevents blood from flowing to the heart) and strokes (where a blood clot prevents oxygen from going to the brain) are life-and-death emergencies where every second counts.

Some heart attacks are sudden and intense, like in the movies, where no one doubts what’s happening. But most heart attacks start slowly, with mild pain or discomfort. The most common symptom is chest pain or discomfort. Other symptoms are discomfort in other areas of the upper body besides the chest, such as the arms, the back, neck, jaw or stomach; shortness of breath; or breaking out in a cold sweat, nausea or lightheadedness. Experts advise calling 9-1-1 as almost always the fastest way to get lifesaving treatment.

The American Stroke Association says the warning signs of stroke are sudden numbness or weakness of the face, arm or leg, especially on one side of the body; sudden confusion, trouble speaking or understanding; sudden trouble seeing in one or both eyes; sudden trouble walking, dizziness, loss of balance or coordination; or sudden, severe headache with no known cause. As with heart attacks, don’t delay in calling 9-1–1 if you experience these symptoms. A clot-busting drug can reduce long-term disability for the most common type of stroke if given within three hours of the start of symptoms.

Not all heart related ailments are easily identified.

It was about three years ago, at age 48, when cardiology nurse and Santa Barbara City College Associate Professor RN/MM Evan McCabe began having chest pain and tingling up her left arm while walking up a hill on campus. When she saw her cardiologist her tests were normal, but she continued to have chest pain when she exercised. After a series of tests and visits to a woman’ s health clinic at Cedar’s Sinai Hospital in Los Angles, McCabe was diagnosed with Endothelial Dysfunction, a disease in which the blood vessels function abnormally and constrict rather than dilate when you exercise.

“I felt really lucky because my doctors listened to me and very lucky in that I had the knowledge base to know when something is not right,” said McCabe, who now has her symptoms under control with medication.

Sometimes other cardiovascular diseases will mimic the symptoms of a heart attack or stroke. In 2007, Ada Connor, director of programs for the Alpha Resource Center of Santa Barbara, thought she was having a heart attack. But when she went to the hospital for an angiogram, they found no blockages in her arteries. They later found out that a virus had settled in her heart, creating a condition called Cardiomyopathy, in which the heart muscle becomes inflamed and doesn’t work as well as it should. In her case it took about 12 weeks of treatment to get her heart back to normal functioning.

“It was pretty scary,” says Connor, the single mother of two teenagers. “But to have gotten a clean bill of heart health was pretty amazing…this really opened my eyes to how lucky I am. I’m very thankful.”

Heart problems can strike women at any age. Laura Pinner, who grew up in Santa Barbara and is now an 18-year-old student at UCLA, caught a virus that settled in her heart when she was only four weeks old. It caused congestive heart failure, and then Cardiomyopathy, which she still lives with today.

“Heart disease is so unknown. It is a silent killer. It also tends to be a, ‘that cant’ happen to me, I’m not a 60-yearold male’ disease,” said Pinner, who has been a volunteer with the American Heart Association for most of her life. “People, women especially, need to be educated that heart disease can happen to anyone. When people know this, then they will have the drive, and provided with education they need, to take actions to prevent heart disease. You can take steps to save yourself, and loved ones, from heart disease. …It is crucial that attention is drawn to how many women are affected by heart disease, in order to decrease the number of women dying and affected by the disease.”

Ten Ways You Can Help Yourself Prevent Heart Disease From the American Heart Association

1. Schedule a yearly checkup.

Have your blood pressure, cholesterol and glucose levels checked on an annual basis and ask your doctor to help you reach or maintain a healthy weight.

2. Get physical.

Get a minimum of 30 minutes of exercise most days of the week.

3. Drink more water.

Take a water bottle with you wherever you go to keep you hydrated.

4. Eat healthy.

5. Control cholesterol.

To help keep your cholesterol levels down, eat foods low in saturated fat and trans fat, such as lean chicken or turkey, fruits and veggies, low-fat or fat-free dairy products and whole grains.

6. Cut down on salt.

To help lower high blood pressure, watch your salt intake.

7. Quit smoking.

8. Maintain a healthy weight.

Excess weight increases your risk of heart disease, stroke and diabetes.

9. Stay positive.

If you get off your exercise schedule, have a cigarette, or eat a fattening meal, immediately get back on track toward re-establishing a healthy lifestyle.

10. Give yourself credit

To maintain momentum with exercising, losing weight, or quitting smoking, keep track of your achievements and reward yourself by doing something you enjoy.

Originally published in Coastal Woman

Leslie Dinaberg Sits Down With Janet Wolf

Janet Wolf, courtesy photo

Janet Wolf, courtesy photo

Issues like the environment, housing, transportation and social services usually top the agendas of county government, but women’s health is also high on the list of concerns for Second District Supervisor Janet Wolf, who celebrates her first year in office in January.

Leslie Dinaberg: I know health is a big concern of yours since you had a heart attack (in December of 2004). How do you manage to stay healthy with such a busy job?

Janet Wolf: I try to continue my daily exercise routine and eat healthy foods. I started a “walk and talk” program, so instead of meeting some people for lunch they would come and we would do a walk and talk downtown. I didn’t want to get into the habit of eating out all the time, so I kicked off this idea at the American Heart Association Wear Red Day last year.

LD: That’s a great idea.

JW: We’re going to do it again in February for the Heart Association.

LD: So you’ve become a heart health advocate partially in response to your own experiences.

JW: Yes. I went through a physical rehabilitation program and changed my diet. I went to a five-day program offered through the Mayo Clinic called Woman-Heart. Women who’ve experienced heart disease, not necessarily heart attacks but a whole myriad, were trained to become spokespersons for women and heart disease.

…I made a commitment that I was going to speak about it and talk about my experiences. They wanted women who did not have a medical background, so they could easily relate to other women about their experiences.

When I returned from the program I was incredibly motivated to get the word out because, as I’m sure you know, heart attacks are the number one killer of women.

… Lois Capps was the co-sponsor of a bill–Heart Disease Education, Research and Analysis, and Treatment (HEART) for Women Act–I was honored to be asked to go to Washington and testify for this bill. In a lot of ways it’s been a way for me to just speak out about something that I’m so passionate about. Talking to women who are moms about heart disease, diet and exercise can also have positive impacts on their children.

LD: Prior to your heart attack, had you ever been told to watch anything by your doctor?

JW: No. Everything was fine. …When this all happened, it just threw us all for a loop.

LD: I can imagine.

JW: I just felt extremely lucky to, first of all, live in Santa Barbara and get really top-notch care when I was in the hospital. But I think the thing and the message to women is prevention and then to know that when you feel that something is not right, don’t wait–take the initiative to get to the doctor or get to the emergency room.

LD: What did it feel like? It doesn’t sound like the dramatic thing that you see on TV.

JW: No. My husband said that, “you didn’t clench your heart and fall over.” It happened over time. I was having what felt like indigestion … (for several days) … I called my doctor… he prescribed medicine for indigestion, so I went and got the prescription filled and it didn’t help. … In the middle of the night I woke up and the pain was incredibly intense.

… By the time I got to the hospital I was having a massive heart attack. By that time the main artery was 100% occluded.

LD: I know this is a stereotype, but do you think that women are more likely to ignore their symptoms because they’re taking care of their families?

JW: I think that is partly true. When I was at the Mayo Clinic there was a woman who said she was having angina while she was at her son’s soccer game but she didn’t want to miss the soccer game. I am grateful that most women know about getting mammograms and colonoscopies … but we need to work harder about the letting people know about the increase of heart disease among women. We must be proactive.

LD: Switching gears a little bit, what’s like to be on the Board of Supervisors?

JW: It’s very exciting; it’s very challenging and rewarding.

LD: I know you served on the Goleta School Board for 12 years, how is it different?

JW: The obvious difference is that this is a full time job and the issues are broader, but I think a lot of the same skill set transfers over … For me it’s just really important to be prepared and on top of my game. And I find the meeting’s fascinating and engaging and it’s very interesting to deal with such a variety of issues. … Trying to have a really positive impact in our community. And that’s the rewarding part. And also meeting some incredible people. I’ve been very lucky to have a great staff.

… I think … we’ve taken care of outstanding issues that the county was dealing with like uniform rules, sphere of influence, and we have some issues that are coming before us like Goleta Beach and we’re also starting the Eastern Goleta PAC that’s going to be the planning document for our community. … I’ve got a great group of colleagues too to work with. Even though we certainly …don’t agree on everything and philosophically I have a point of view they may not share, but I think there is a mutual respect.

LD: That’s always good to hear. What do you think our biggest challenges are right now as a county?

JW: Right now I think it’s aligning our budget with our priorities or our fiscal challenges with our priorities.

LD: I keep hearing at the state level the budget is going to be so bad, how does it look in the county?

JW: There have been very conservative estimates on the impact on the county budget and because of the potential there’s been certain budget principles that have been put into place that are a little troubling to me. I think we will be impacted but there are also ways on the revenue side to try and enhance that. I have requested that the board hold a budget workshop in late February or early March to review the preliminary budget so that we can have input earlier on in the process.

… It’s certainly not a rosy picture but I also don’t think it’s total a bleak picture either. … If you have to make cuts, in my opinion, you look at the whole picture and you make them timely and wisely.

Vital Stats: Janet Wolf

Born: Los Angeles, May 17, 1954

Family: Husband Harvey, three daughters, Jessica (27), Stephanie (24), and Kim (20)

Civic Involvement: Alpha Resource Center, Planned Parenthood, National Charity League, League of Women Voters, Women’s Heart Health Advocate

Professional Accomplishments: Worked as a vocational rehabilitation counselor for more than 20 years; served on the Goleta School Board for 12 years; current member of the County Board of Supervisors

Little-Known Fact: “I love making necklaces. It’s a new hobby. I just discovered it.”

Originally published in Noozhawk on December 31, 2007.