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.