By Dr. Suzanne SteinbaumDirector of Women and Heart Disease at Lenox Hill HospitalAuthor of the upcoming book, Dr. Suzanne Steinbaum’s Heart Book: Every Woman’s Guide to a Heart-Healthy Life
Rosie O’Donnell’s heart attack is a wake-up call – at least, I hope it will be. When she suffered a 99% blockage in the top part of her coronary artery, what cardiologists call the “Widow Maker,” she was on the brink of having a massive heart attack that could have killed her.
Rosie told the world that she waited 24 hours before seeking help because she wasn’t sure her painful symptoms were actually coming from her heart. She did what millions of women do every single day – they make excuses for their pain. They push it aside. They tell themselves, “It’s probably nothing,” and they don’t want to make a big deal out of nothing. In Rosie’s case, it most certainly was not “nothing.” Thank goodness she sought help when she did. If this happened to you, what would you do? Would you save your own life? Or would you “wait and see”?
Women’s heart symptoms are not always like that Hollywood heart attack we see in the movies – a man clutches his chest and falls to the ground, and we all know what it means. Women’s symptoms are more subtle than that. They are more likely to have shortness of breath, jaw pain, back pain, arm pain, nausea, vomiting, fatigue, or even flu-like symptoms. Sometimes, they never have chest pain at all, even in the case of a massive heart attack. But women also have intuition, and that can make up for more obvious symptoms, if you listen to it.
When I ask my women patients who have lived with heart disease if they knew something was wrong with their hearts, they all said that deep inside, they knew, even if they didn’t want to admit they knew, even if they were too scared to say it out loud. If you pay attention to your symptoms rather than dismiss them, if you listen to that inner voice, if you trust your intuition and get help, then you greatly increase your chances of survival, should you ever have a heart attack. Even if it’s not your heart, it’s better to be wrong and alive.
Heart disease is the number-one killer of women, and more women die each year from heart disease than all forms of cancer combined – so this isn’t a rare condition unlikely to afflict you. On the contrary, you are likely to develop heart disease at some point in your life. Yet, because science has yet to understand women’s heart health for as long as it has understood that heart disease is common in men, and because a woman’s symptoms aren’t always as obvious as a man’s, even doctors may miss the diagnosis. I say this not to scare you, but to put you in a place of empowerment.
This is why you must be vigilant. If you think that you are having a heart attack, immediately chew two aspirin. This could prevent a clot from forming and blocking off blood flow in the artery. It could save your life.
In addition, it is imperative to do everything you can to prevent heart disease in the first place. Know your risk factors for heart disease, so you know whether you are likely to be headed in that direction.
Risk factors include high blood pressure, high cholesterol, diabetes, smoking, and family history. We now know that obesity, a sedentary lifestyle, and stress also all play a role in the development of plaque in the arteries. Even your mood and outlook on life can affect the arteries of your heart and your risk of developing heart disease and having a heart attack.
The good news is that 80 to 90% of the time, heart disease is preventable. How you choose to live your life has everything to do with how well your heart will function. What you eat, how much and how vigorously you move, how much you sit, and how you deal with and manage the stress and anxiety in your day all influence the development of plaque formation. It’s not your fault if you didn’t know this – but now you know!
Here’s the bottom line: Eat a basically vegetarian diet, with or without the occasional addition of low-fat meat and low-fat dairy products. Stay away from simple sugars and carbohydrates most of the time, and avoid processed foods. Work up to 150 minutes of moderate-intensity exercise per week, and be active throughout your day as much as possible. Fight against society’s bad habits of too much sitting, in your car, at your desk, and in front of the television. Get enough sleep. Manage your stress. Breathe deeply. Cultivate your most supportive relationships. Every one of these lifestyle components makes a difference in your heart. We are all over-stressed, over-burdened, and over-worked. The juggling act isn’t getting any easier as life gets more complex and we are constantly expected to take on more and more and more. Finding time to take care of yourself in all these important ways and cultivating a “glass half-full” attitude are real, legitimate heart savers.
Despite the significant threat heart disease poses to women, somehow, so many of us still seem to think it’s somebody else’s problem. In one survey of women, 99% of women said that they knew heart disease was the number-one killer of women, but when asked what their own risk was, only 13% said it was a personal problem. When doctors on the frontlines taking care of women patients were asked if they use preventive guidelines to help protect their patients’ hearts, only about 30% said that they implemented the Women and Heart Disease Preventive Guidelines, rewritten and updated in 2011. There is a disconnect here, ladies. What threatens us is large and dangerous – and yet, we ignore it, and our doctors may not see it or warn us about what to do.
But you can help yourself. You can take charge of your own risk and your own lifestyle choices. You can be part of a changing statistic. You can make a difference for yourself, and by doing that, you can change the world. Let’s use Rosie’s story as a place to begin rewriting our own stories, every one of us. Know your risk factors, get checked, find out your family history, and practice self-care. Start now. What are you waiting for?
The truth is that Rosie was lucky. What happened to her could have killed her in an instant. Now, she gets a second chance. Let’s make her second chance our first wake up call. You don’t have to have a heart attack. Turn around and go a different way. Let’s all do it together.