Women’s Hearts: A Special Report

I always thought that equal rights for women were about equal pay for equal work, sharing in child care and housework, lack of discrimination in hiring for jobs, and all the other aspects that the Women’s Movement sought to effect. However, after reading about heart disease and women, I realize that females actually have unequal rights in the field of medicine, as well, especially in the field of heart disease.

I read a story a few years ago that a woman in her forties went to the emergency room claiming she was having a heart attack. The doctors scoffed at this notion and did not believe her. After all, she was only in her forties and did not fit the standard profile of a heart attack patient. She subsequently died. I actually thought this might have been an exception, but after reading a terrific article about women and heart disease in the February issue of Ladies’ Home Journal: “Heart Health:A Save-Your-Life Handbook,” I realized this story was not an exception.

According to the article, cardio-vascular assessments underestimate the risk to women. Some of the tests that are considered “basic” are not as accurate for women as they are for men. The information gap between women’s hearts and men’s hearts needs to be bridged—now! Here is the opening paragraph of the article in LHJ by Leslie Laurence:

“Women’s and men’s hearts literally thump to the beats of different drummers. From size and structure to electrical activity, women’s hearts are not merely smaller versions of men’s.”

One glaring example of this is the list of “atypical” symtoms for women: nausea, vomiting, indigestion, pain in the upper abdomen and back, pain in the jaw, neck, shoulder and back, as well as the chest, and angina triggered by mental stress. These are considered atypical, because most of the tests have been done on men, and it is men’s symptoms that are considered typical, like numbness in the left arm and tightness in the chest. While women may also have these symptoms, the other “atypical” ones are sometimes ignored by doctors because they don’t fit the (male) profile.

The information in this article is quite comprehensive,discussing the four faces of heart disease. The author describes problems with 1) the cardiovascular system, 2) the heart muscle, 3) the electrical system, and 4) the heart valves. In each one, she describes “the female difference.”

Regarding the cardiovascular system, while men begin to show signs of coronary disease 10 years before women, when women are affected, it hits them harder. Comparing males to females in the second instance, the heart muscle, the article notes that women are twice as likely as men to develop diastolic heart failure (heart muscle does not relax normally after contracting, leading to higher pressure in the heart as well as shortness of breath.) With the electrical system, women have a faster baseline heart rate and are more prone to certain types of arrhythmias. Finally, regarding heart valves, the mitral valve is most commonly affected when there is a problem, and in women, the rate is three to four times more than in men.

The article continues with another inequality: “Despite the first evidence-based cardiovascular-disease-prevention guidelines for women, published in 2004 by the American Heart Association, doctors are less likely to recommend heart-protective lifestyle changes and medication to their female patients. That’s because many physicians still assign women to lower heart-risk categories than men with similar health problems…..”

Since there are risk factors midlife women cannot change—being over 55, post-menopausal, and a family history of hypertension (high blood pressure), heart disease, or diabetes—- what we women can do is to take care of our bodies in ways that will help us keep our hearts healthy. The booklet from the U.S. Department of Health & Human Services, called The Healthy Heart Handbook for Women, is an excellent place to start. At the recent talk I attended (See Carol for Heart posting in This ‘n That), each woman received this handbook and the information is excellent.

In addition to all the risk factors described in lay language, there is another section that starts with Taking Control, and describes such programs as DASH (Dietary Approaches to Stop Hypertension) to TLC (Therapeutic Lifestyle Changes). There are also excellent charts that educate us at a glance, such as the ones on risk factors, determining your body mass index for a healthy weight, the DASH Eating Plan, and label reading, and figuring out fat.

There is also a section called “Learning New Moves,” since regular exercise is one of the best ways to prevent heart disease. Exercise not only helps with weight, but also with dealing with depression, one of the “side effects” of menopause in some women. (More in that in a future blog.) Eat for Health is also covered in the handbook and reflects the trend towards whole grains, fruits and veggies, low fat, and if you eliminate lean meats from the list, you have a lacto-ovo vegetarian diet. (Just a hint!)

While both the article in Ladies’ Home Journal and the Handbook from the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, which includes the National Institutes of Health (N.I.H.) and the National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute (NHLBI) are comprehensive, including types of treatment and medications used to prevent and manage heart issues, there is no mention of alternative therapies. For example, hawthorn berries are considered helpful for the heart. Vitamin E was recently crossed off the list for a direct relationship to the heart, but it is an important nutrient, nevertheless. Also, none of the mainstream research recommends a low-fat vegetarian diet, even though all the food suggestions do emphasize low fat dairy and lean meats.

I Googled Herbs and Heart Disease and the first link that came from www.alive.com had a good deal of information about supplements and herbs. Below is just one small section about herbs for the heart, quoted directly:

Herbs for the Heart

Herbalists generally rely on six categories of herbs to support the heart and circulation. Many of these herbs, most notably garlic, ginkgo biloba, ginseng and hawthorn, are also receiving increasing medical attention, as their traditional uses have proven themselves:

To strengthen and stabilize heart function: hawthorn berries, motherwort, ginkgo biloba and, to a lesser extent, linden flowers, passion flower, ginger, garlic and lemon balm.
Circulatory stimulants: ginger, garlic, prickly ash and cayenne.
Arterial toners and strengtheners: meadowsweet, prickly ash, horsetail and rosemary.
For calming and blood pressure lowering: hawthorn, motherwort, linden, passionflower and lemon balm.
Antioxidant herbs: ginkgo biloba, hawthorn, garlic and rosemary.
Herbs that lower blood fats and prevent blood clots: hawthorn, garlic, ginkgo biloba, guggul and ginger.

In sum, heart disease is the number one killer of women. In the Handbook I read three surprising facts: 1) One in two women in the US dies of heart disease or stroke, while one in 30 dies of breast cancer; 2) 38% of women will die within one year after having a heart attack; 3) within six years of having a heart attack, about 46% become disabled with heart failure. These are staggering statistics, certainly a wake-up call for me.

I urge you to buy a copy of the February issue of Ladies’ Home Journal and read the article on women and heart disease. Also, log onto either or both of these websites: www.nhlbi.nih.gov or www.hearttruth.gov (A National Awareness Campaign on Women and Heart Disease) for more information, as well as www.alive.com and type in Supplements and Herbs for a Healthy Heart in the search box or just Google Herbs for a Healthy Heart.

I like to cover all my bases, or perhaps, all my ventricles!
Your heart will love you for it!

2 thoughts on “Women’s Hearts: A Special Report

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

Copyright ©2022 Ellen Sue Spicer-Jacobson. | Website by Parrish Digital.