Women and heart health: sounding an early warning

Feb 23rd, 2012 | By | Category: Recent Pioneer Press Columns

As seen in the St. Paul Pioneer Press on February 24, 2012.

Every 25 seconds, an American has a heart attack. Every minute someone dies from one. Though one in three people are living with heart disease, most don’t know it.

Dr. Daniel Garry is chief of cardiology and director of the University of Minnesota Lillehei Heart Institute (med.umn.edu/lhi). Driven by a philosophy that information is power and ignorance is not bliss, Garry has set ambitious goals: to create awareness about and eradicate the No. 1 killer of both women and men, to push prevention and to find a champion for the cause.

With the prevalence of pink ribbons, one might assume that breast cancer is women’s biggest health concern. In fact, eight times as many women die from heart disease as all forms of cancer combined.

Garry, who also is president of the Minnesota chapter of the American Heart Association, lauds the success of breast cancer advocates. “Breast cancer is a beacon for what we should be doing,” he says. “We need to be more like them, especially in getting the word out. We need a champion to take this cause to a new level because people are dying.”

Heart disease involves more than heart attacks. It can present through a number of problems related to a process called atherosclerosis that develops when plaque builds up in the artery walls, impeding blood flow.

A heart attack occurs when a blood clot blocks the blood flow to part of the heart.

Congestive heart failure occurs when the heart does not pump blood as well as it should but it continues to work with insufficient blood or oxygen.

Arrhythmia is an abnormal rhythm of the heart (too fast, too slow, or irregular) that affects how well the heart functions. Heart valve problems develop when the valves do not open enough to enable the blood to flow properly.

According to the American Heart Association, most Americans do not know that ideal cardiovascular health has seven components: a proper diet; a good exercise regimen; no smoking; an ideal body mass index; and good cholesterol, blood pressure and blood glucose.

It would seem intuitive that physical activity supports heart health while sedentary activity leads to diabetes, cardiovascular disease and death. Yet many Americans need a reality check. In a summary of 2010 research, the AHA noted, “Thirty-nine percent of Americans believe they are in ideal cardiovascular health when in reality less than 1 percent are.”

The AHA reports that an astounding 80 percent of cardiac events in women could be prevented with proper choices about diet, exercise, and smoking. This month the organization has been raising awareness and encouraging change through its Go Red for Women campaign (www.heart.org).

Making time for our own health can be challenging when we are working, shopping, cooking, driving kids to play practice and hockey tournaments and logging more hours in mini-vans and on bleachers than on treadmills or bicycles. Yet, our lives depend on it.

Garry is known for saying, “There are 500 reasons for chest pain but only one that matters.” Since a heart attack doesn’t always feel like an elephant has landed on one’s chest, how do we know if we should call 911? Symptoms include:

~Uncomfortable pressure, squeezing, fullness or pain in the center of the chest that either lasts more than a few minutes or goes away and comes back.

~Pain or discomfort in one or both arms, the back, neck, jaw or stomach.

~Shortness of breath with or without chest discomfort.

~A cold sweat, nausea/vomiting or lightheadedness.

Not every one heeds the warning signs, especially women. Heart failure is the number one reason patients come into the hospital, Garry said. Rather than spending enormous resources at the end stage of the disease process, he and his colleagues are focusing on identifying it early enough to prevent it.

“We’re becoming more aggressive with people who are at the early stages of the disease,” Garry said. “Wouldn’t you want to know if you are in that category?”

An innovative screening device offered at the Rasmussen Center for Cardiovascular Disease Prevention (part of the Lillehei Institute) is a means to that end. The Rasmussen score indicates whether patients have early signs of cardiovascular disease and scales the risk for the disease to worsen and become fatal. The two-hour non-invasive screening assesses risk, utilizing established indicators such as blood pressure and cholesterol levels as well as factors such as medical and family history and an evaluation of small and large artery elasticity, Garry explained.

Of the thousands of patients who have been screened at the Rasmussen Center, 60 percent demonstrated some sign of disease, Garry said. When a problem is identified, a plan is developed and patients are referred back to community practitioners for implementation. Some conditions and risks can be fixed with diet and exercise, while others require medication. Patients who learn they have no abnormalities are able to live their lives without wondering if they will be one of nearly 800,000 Americans to have a heart attack annually.

These innovations are being funded in part by taxpayer dollars, Garry noted, so Minnesotans should take advantage of them. In addition to exporting their discoveries into the medical community, he said, “The goal for us as a health care community is to put ourselves out of business.”

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One Comment to “Women and heart health: sounding an early warning”

  1. Becky Henry says:

    Thank you Caryn Sullivan for shining light on these heart issues for all of us. With these vague symptoms you mention for women it can be so hard for us to feel it is worthy of calling for help. But it’s good to be familiar with them so we can make wise decisions if it happens.

    So many people are also unaware that heart attacks and heart failure are quite prevalent in those with eating disorders. Both males and females. I work with families of those with eating disorders and am always spreading the message to know the signs so they can get to a hospital and know what to tell the hospital staff if one of these things happens.

    Many doctors have not been trained to know that it is essential to check electrolytes in an eating disorder patient who shows up in the ER with irregular heart rates. If families know this they can ask for the right tests.

    Becky Henry
    Hope Network, LLC

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