Heart disease symptoms, programs different for women

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Published: May 10,2004

It`s a stark, cold fact that heart disease, traditionally thought of as a man`s disease, is the number one killer of American women. One woman in 27 dies of breast cancer while one of every two dies of heart disease.

“Alerting women to these facts will be our primary focus for the next two years,” said Becky Ginn, the American Heart Association`s senior regional director for the Gulf Coast. “It`s all about education and awareness.”

The shift seems to have come in the 1980s when more women started being diagnosed with heart problems as awareness grew, she said. The conditions were always there but probably weren`t diagnosed. Women are now more prone to speak out and ask health-related questions. Also, she feels that women were treated as second-class citizens whose symptoms were sometimes attributed to hormones or mental conditions.

“It was considered a man`s disease. Stress tests weren`t done on women,” she said. “Women`s bodies are different from men`s, and the symptoms attack women differently.”

Women`s hormones may actually help ward off heart disease, according to Dr. Robert Robbins, a cardiothorasic surgeon at Forrest General Hospital in Hattiesburg. “The hormonal effects of being a woman are probably protective for many years,” he said. “Heart disease is traditionally presented in older women, although we’re seeing a different patient mix now.”

He thinks the medical profession is now more attuned to heart disease in women than in the past. He lists the risk factors as family history, smoking, high blood pressure, obesity, diabetes, high cholesterol and physical inactivity.

“If any of these factors are present, you need to have your family doctor or internist keep you under surveillance,” Robbins said.

Ginn said some of the risks can be reduced through lifestyle choices.

“The number one thing we have control over is not smoking,” she said. “We can also eat healthy, exercise and have our blood pressure checked; even once a year helps.”

She also pointed out that just 30 minutes of exercise such as brisk walking three times a week can greatly reduce cardio diseases. “It`s much easier to just take a pill than to eat right and exercise,” she said. “We have the highest levels of obesity and hypertension in the nation. Only 14% of the people in our state are active.”

Ginn attributes these startling facts to lack of education and awareness. To gain information, she directs people to the association`s Web site, which is free to the public and has materials that are user friendly and easy to understand. The address is www.americanheart.org, and there is a whole section on programs for women.

At Memorial Hospital in Gulfport, a special program – Women`s HeartAdvantage – was begun to confront this increasing problem. To get the word out, they list the following signs and symptoms of a heart attack for a woman:

• Chest discomfort

• Pain spreading to shoulders, neck or arm

• Shortness of breath

• Nausea

• Dizziness

• Indigestion or gas-like pain

• Unexplained weakness or fatigue

• Discomfort/pain between shoulder blades

• Sense of impending doom

Florida resident Wanda Bellich knows now about those symptoms after her unexpected surgery at Memorial following a heart attack. She felt warning signs were missed. For several months, the 82-year-old`s neck and shoulder pains were treated as osteoarthritis. Horrendous chest pains finally led her to interrupt a family vacation, and a quintuple bypass was performed at Memorial.

“The staff was great,” Bellich said. “It couldn`t have been a better place for it to happen.” She returned to Florida following her surgery and her family expects her recovery to be aided by her healthy diet and physical fitness regimens.

At age 41, Dana Smith of Gulfport underwent quadruple bypass surgery at Memorial. She had a family history of the disease and had been a 20-year smoker.

“If I had things to do over again, I would exercise more, eat healthier and not start smoking,” she said “all the things they teach you to do now.”

At Forrest General, 69-year-old Eula Mahaffey of Monticello had six of the seven risk factors and was definitely considered a high-risk case for the triple bypass surgery performed by Dr. Robbins. The team in the hospital`s comprehensive cardiac care program pulled her through and released her two weeks after surgery.

“I have nothing but praise for the hospital and staff and I think Robbins is wonderful. He saved her life,” said Theresa Jones of New Hebron, Mahaffey`s daughter. “It`s remarkable what they were able to do.”

Robbins, who`s been in Hattiesburg seven years, said that while some things about heart disease are different in women, surgery and follow-up treatment are the same for men and women.

Forrest General`s Cardiovascular Center of Excellence performs more than 5,500 cardiac procedures each year. Joanne Stevens of Hattiesburg didn`t think she was a candidate for a heart attack but she went immediately to Forrest General when she began experiencing the symptoms.

Getting immediate medical help vastly improves the chances of surviving a heart attack. Recognizing the symptoms and acting quickly can also minimize damage to the heart muscle. Because she got medical help quickly, Stevens recovered fully from her heart attack and suffered no permanent damage.

Memorial Hospital in Gulfport operates a full program of heart care including cardiac wellness/education/fitness programs, diabetes care and Memorial RiteWeigh.

Ginn said the Heart Association is gearing up for the Gulf Coast fundraiser and awareness walk on August 28 that has become the biggest walk in the state. It started with 175 people eight years ago and had 5,500 people last year.

Contact MBJ contributing Lynn Lofton at mbj@msbusiness.com.

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