Heart Aware

Central Coast Active - Heart Aware


Heart Aware

By Ruth Ann Angus

Elizabeth Faulkner never imagined that she would have a heart attack. At 42 years old she was a healthy, active mom. But on October 12th 2012, as she was driving down the road, she felt that something was wrong. She fainted, and fortunately the friend that was with her immediately dialed 911 on her cell phone. By the time Faulkner made it to the hospital she experienced not one, but two heart attacks. Faulkner had to have a triple bypass operation to correct what was wrong with her heart. “It’s funny,” she told me as she exercised at the Cardiac Rehabilitation department of French Hospital, “but I had no symptoms whatsoever. Not a clue that anything was wrong.”

This is the problem when it comes to women’s heart health. Classic symptoms that are experienced by men don’t usually occur with women. Faulkner’s story illuminates certain ideas about heart health in women in general. For one thing most people don’t expect a woman to suffer a heart attack and certainly not as young as 42.

Denise Gimbel, Registered Nurse and Coordinator of the Cardiac Rehabilitation department of French Medical Center, said that 60,000 more women than men die each year from coronary artery disease, referred to as CAD and many of these deaths occur with women having had no discernible symptoms. These are referred to as silent heart attacks.

Heart disease is the number one cause of death among women and coronary artery disease is most prevalent. Without understanding the risks associated with the typical sedentary lifestyle that so many women lead, this statistic will remain in effect. “We’re hoping with education, particularly for young women,” Gimbel said, “that by 2025 heart disease will no longer hold this spot and cancer will then be the number one cause of death.”

 “With the heart,” Gimbel said, “there is what we refer to as the electrical system and the plumbing system.”  People who suffer with irregular heart rhythm or fibrillation have electrical problems. Atrial fibrillation, where the heart rate is substantially increases, is one of the heart problems that is seen most in emergency rooms. Atrial fibrillation can lead to stroke from clots. Here too, women are at a disadvantage as 15% to 20% more women than men will suffer a stroke due to atrial fibrillation. That amounts to 55,000 more women than men a year. Stroke can be fatal or, even worse, debilitating and rehabilitation is difficult.

With the plumbing system coronary artery disease comes into play and as scary as A-fib is, the electrical heart problems are not the primary reason women suffer heart attacks. With coronary artery disease the blood vessels fill up with plaque and rust due to cholesterol and triglyceride levels that are too high. “In women elevated triglycerides are more dangerous,” Gimbel said, “and studies are only just beginning in regards to women on this.”

Instead of the classical sharp pain in the chest that men experience when having a heart attack, women may have some shortness of breath, back pain, or nausea, and sometimes vomiting. Faulkner reported none of these symptoms but once the heart attacks happened, then she experienced some vomiting. Faulkner obviously suffered from coronary artery disease without even knowing it.

What is it that is causing young women in particular to increase their risk for CAD? “Poor nutrition, obesity, lack of physical activity, and smoking,” Gimbel said, “is showing a correspondingly higher mortality rate with women, and this despite treatments to deal with CAD.”

One of the non-modifiable risk factors for CAD in women is genetics.  It is vital to know your family history since if your parents or grandparents were prone to CAD you will have a higher chance of developing it also. And post menopausal women tend to gain weight and are less active, leaving them open for developing higher triglycerides and cholesterol levels. “Women tend to form CAD more diffusely whereas men form it in clumps,” Gimbel said. And for some reason women are less likely than men to be treated with statin therapy to alleviate high triglycerides and cholesterol.

Prevention of CAD in women places emphasis on a healthy lifestyle. The risk of heart disease is reduced by 82% in women who do not smoke, eat a healthy diet, maintain a proper body mass index, and exercise at least 30 to 60 minutes a day. “You can exercise in 10-minute increments, “Gimbel suggested, “You don’t have to do all 30 to 60 minutes in one session. Just move around! Ideally we should be taking about 10,000 steps a day,” she said, “and most people only do about 2000 to 3000.”

Gimbel cited a statistic that states that two out of three women over 20 years of age are obese. It is also alarming that young adults appear to be taking up smoking in spite of the knowledge of the risks.

This year French Medical Center and the Cardiac Rehabilitation department will be starting the “Healthy Women” programs for “Save A Heart” when they celebrate “A Year of Women’s Health.” Gimbel will be targeting young women at Cal Poly and Cuesta College to educate them on the risks of developing heart disease. She will be able to do cholesterol testing on these young people, and to talk about blood sugar and lifestyle habits. Participants who need assistance will then be sent to a doctor for follow-up.

In conjunction with that, anyone can access a program called “Heart Aware” on French Medical Center’s web site and answer questions about their own risk factors and then find access to appropriate care if needed. To see this go to www.frenchmedicalcenter.org .