Menopause Mondays: Women and the Prevention of Heart Disease
My father experienced his first heart attack at the age of 42 in 1963. He was a very strong, dynamic, and accomplished businessman, loving father, and husband. In those days, doctors could only prescribe a stringent, low fat diet, the use of margarine instead of butter1, and exercise. There were no medications available to clear or slow the clogging of his arteries. At 48, Dad was sent to Houston where Dr. Denton Cooley performed open-heart surgery on him. I remember our family, crowded around my Dad’s bedside, while listening to Dr. Cooley explain that high cholesterol results in clogged arteries, and that high cholesterol was hereditary. I was a young teenager at the time, feeling invincible, and not making the connection that this news had any bearing on my life in any way.
After the surgery, when we arrived back in Tucson, my parents insisted that I have my cholesterol checked. When I heard the results, I thought the lab had confused my fathers test results with mine. They indicated that my cholesterol level was alarmingly high. I felt great – a normal, energetic teenager. However instantly, my life changed, as I immediately connected my father’s health issues with my own sense of wellness. As I watched my father heal from his surgery, the value of good health became crystal clear to me. The health benefits from my father’s surgery lasted 10 years. Then, the angina came back, and Dad returned to Houston. This time, the doctors sent him home because his weakened body could not handle surgery. My family hoped for a miracle solution that never came. My world crumbled as I watched my Dad’s health continue to deteriorate. Sadly, my beloved father died of arteriosclerosis and heart disease at 58 years young.
I am living proof that a heart-healthy lifestyle and the effective use of preventative medicines are as important as hereditary predispositions. Since that long-ago, life-shifting intervention by Dr. Cooley, I have been proactive about my health.
Did you know that heart disease is the #1 killer of women in the United States? In the United States, a woman suffers from a heart attack every 90 seconds.2 However, most of these heart attacks could be avoided if women made better heart healthy choices such as diet, exercise, and not smoking. After menopause, women are more at risk for developing heart disease partly because our bodies produce less estrogen. Women who go through early menopause either naturally or medically induced (as a result of a hysterectomy or medication) are twice as likely to develop heart disease as women of the same age who have not yet gone through menopause. Make certain that you have a yearly physical that includes a heart-healthy screening. Your risks of heart disease may increase if you are overweight, smoke, or if you have high blood pressure, elevated blood cholesterol levels, or diabetes. To help understand your own personal risks of heart disease and what you can do to avoid it, reach out to your physician and discuss the following possible tests to evaluate your risks:
- A Lipid Panel which usually includes cholesterol, triglycerides, high-density lipoprotein (HDL), and low-density lipoprotein (LDL). You might want to read about an even more extensive test called the VAP.
- Blood Sugar Tests to determine your level of insulin sensitivity.
- C-reactive protein levels to evaluate your inflammation levels. (Some doctors feel this is effective test in helping to evaluate your risk CHD some do not.)
- Stress Test depending upon age, condition and family history.
- E KG
Know the symptoms of a heart attack for women as they present differently than in men. They can be more subtle than chest pains. Women often have blockage not only in their main arteries but also in the smaller arteries that supply blood to the heart. Take note of the following symptoms:
- Unusual heavy pressure or weight on your chest
- Sharp upper body pain in your neck, shoulder, upper back or abdominal discomfort
- Severe shortness of breath
- Lightheadedness, nausea or vomiting (Rose O’Donnell’s recent experience)
- Sweating (cold sweats – not like a hot flash)
- Lightheadedness or dizziness
- Unusual fatigue
What can you to do to be proactive about your health?
- Do not smoke and stay away from secondhand smoke
- Exercise – find something you like: walk, bike, hike, play tennis. You name it – just keep moving!
- Eat a healthy diet rich in fruits, veggies and fiber – limit saturated fats, trans fats & sodium
- Drink alcohol in moderation
- Maintain a healthy weight
Thanks to my experience with my father, I developed an early awareness of my cardiovascular health risks. This knowledge inspired me to a heart-healthy lifestyle. I also have continued to educate myself on the subject and have benefited from scientific breakthroughs in treatment and prevention. Because of this, I recently received a wonderful gift. I celebrated my 59th birthday.
Remember my motto: Suffering in silence is OUT! Reaching out is IN!
Tell me: What’s stopping you from living a heart-healthy lifestyle?
I love heart health!
- 1The butter vs. margarine debate continues, but the current recommendation from the American Heart Association is soft, trans-fat-free spreads instead of regular butter or stick margarine.
- Questions to ask your doctor
- Learn more about heart health for women at Go Red for Women
- Mayo Clinic gives heart health tips for women
- AARP blogs about the #1 killer in women
- 2Don’t Miss a Beat, heart attack information for women from WomensHealth.gov