After practicing medicine for 24 years as a cardiologist, Hiroko Noda-Heiny, MD, FACC, has seen an evolution in the diagnosis and treatment of women with cardiovascular disease.
“Doctors didn’t previously take seriously atypical symptoms like chest pain in women. When I was in medical school, they taught us to check to see if the patient’s sternum was sore, give the woman Motrin® for pain relief and send her home. There wasn’t an understanding of their risk of cardiovascular disease,” she explains. “Today, if a woman comes into the ER with chest pains, she gets a full workup, including an EKG and enzyme test.”
That said, there remains much work to do in the area of educating women that they, indeed, can have a heart attack. And that when they do, it’s deadly. One out of three women dies of cardiovascular disease. That is more than all cancers combined.
“The best way to avoid becoming part of that statistic is to know your risks,” says Noda-Heiny. This is why Hancock Health has partnered with Ascension Health’s Women’s Cardiac Risk Clinic to help women navigate heart health. Step No. 1, according to Noda-Heiny: Get your lipids (cholesterol and triglycerides) checked and your risk factors assessed.
Cholesterol and triglycerides, as well as smoking, blood pressure, excess weight, waist circumference, physical inactivity, stress and type 2 diabetes, are all what are known as “modifiable risk factors.” You can take action — making changes in lifestyle — to combat the impact of those risks on your heart. Other risks, like age, heredity, and race, are unmodifiable.
Meanwhile, according to a study published in a special “Go Red for Women” issue of the American Heart Association journal Circulation, more women between the ages of 35 and 54 are not only having heart attacks, but they’re presenting with the aforementioned risk factors. Noda-Heiny attributes these findings in part to the actual diagnosis of women’s cardiac symptoms versus just a couple of decades ago when the symptoms were blamed on indigestion or a pulled chest muscle. Unfortunately, she also believes that women are inclined to let their symptoms and overall well-being slide to last place, behind family and professional stresses. The propensity to eat at our desks and swing through the fast-food drive-thru aren’t helping either.
Aside from taking time to put your health first — ahead of your kid’s soccer practice and the office pitch-in — if you are a woman younger than 40, Noda-Heiny emphatically encourages you to NOT dismiss symptoms like overwhelming fatigue, flu-like symptoms, nausea, or sweating.
“It’s not always chest pain that you associate with a heart attack. Women might be quick to blame other factors, but by the time they end up in the emergency room, it can be very serious. Ignoring those symptoms is why so many women are dying of heart attacks,” she says.
Regardless of symptoms, cardiovascular health should be a primary consideration throughout one’s life, says Dr. Noda-Heiny. “It’s not just happening when we turn 50. It’s happening to us throughout our entire lives.”