Facts About Heart Disease in Women

January 25, 2018

By Kathy Bennett

NORTH CONWAY, NH – Do you know what causes heart disease in women? What about the survival rate? Or whether women of all ethnicities share the same risk?

According to the American Heart Association, It doesn’t affect all women alike, and the warning signs for women aren’t the same in men. Fortunately, Conway native Andrea Libby realized in time she was having symptoms last year, then drove herself to Memorial Hospital where she was told she was indeed having a heart attack.

Read on for her story which reinforces misconceptions about heart disease that could be putting you at risk. The American Heart Association’s Go Red For Women movement advocates for more research and swifter action for women’s heart health for this very reason.

It’s true: Heart disease is the No. 1 killer in women. Yet, only 1 in 5 American women believe that heart disease is her greatest health threat.

The truth is, women are less likely to call 9-1-1 when experiencing symptoms of a heart attack themselves. It simply doesn’t occur to them to do so. And why would it? The bulk of media attention on the disease is focused on men.

Here are more unsettling facts:

  • Heart disease causes 1 in 3 women’s deaths each year, killing approximately one woman every minute.
  • 90 percent of women have one or more risk factors for developing heart disease.
  • Since 1984, more women than men have died each year from heart disease and the gap between men and women’s survival continues to widen.

The symptoms of heart disease can be different in women vs. men, and are often misunderstood. That’s why Memorial Hospital’s Heart Health & Wellness Center will recognize February 2, 2018 as National Wear Red Day for Women. The recognition seeks to raise awareness of women’s heart health. “We hope to see many Memorial Hospital employees, patients and community members show their support on February 2nd by wearing something red to show their support for women with heart disease and stroke,” shared Michele Keenan, coordinator for the Center. The hospital’s cafeteria, which is open to the general public, will offer a special menu that day with heart healthy options.

It’s all part of Memorial’s efforts to support this annual American Heart Association event, and share potentially life-saving information on heart disease with its community.

What causes heart disease?

Heart disease affects the blood vessels and cardiovascular system. Numerous problems can result from this, many of which are related to a process called atherosclerosis, a condition that develops when plaque builds up in the walls of the arteries. This buildup narrows the arteries, making it harder for blood to flow through. If a blood clot forms, it can stop the blood flow. This can cause a heart attack or stroke.

But it doesn’t end there. Heart disease can take many other forms as well:

  • Heart failure or congestive heart failure, which means that the heart is still working, but it isn’t pumping blood as well as it should, or getting enough oxygen.
  • Arrhythmia or an abnormal rhythm of the heart, which means the heart is either beating too fast, too slow or irregularly. This can affect how well the heart is functioning and whether or not the heart is able to pump enough blood to meet the body’s needs.
  • Heart valve problems can lead to the heart not opening enough to allow proper blood flow. Sometimes the heart valves don’t close and blood leaks through, or the valve leaflets bulge or prolapse into the upper chamber, causing blood to flow backward through them.

How to Prevent Heart Disease

Many things can put you at risk for these problems – one’s you can control, and others that you can’t. But the key takeaway is that with the right information, education and care, heart disease in women can be treated, prevented and even ended.

Studies show that healthy choices have resulted in 330 fewer women dying from heart disease per day. Here are a few lifestyle changes to make:

• Don’t smoke
• Manage your blood sugar
• Get your blood pressure under control
• Lower your cholesterol
• Know your family history
• Stay active
• Lose weight
• Eat healthy

Andrea’s Story

Andrea Libby is owner and operator of Libby Computer. An avid hiker and life-long Valley resident, Andrea agreed to share the story so that other women can understand the common symptoms and misconceptions about heart disease in women. As part of her cardiac rehab program, Andrea worked with the team at the Memorial Hospital Heart Health & Wellness Center to help her get back on her feet. Andrea wrote the story below 3 weeks after her heart attack, but the good news is that a year later, she is living a healthier lifestyle, is back at work and back on the hiking trails with her faithful dog Greta.

Many of my women friends asked me how I knew I was having a heart attack. As women, we are told that our symptoms are harder to detect. When should we see a doctor to ensure we are OK? After all, the Hollywood 'grab-your-chest-dramatically-it's-so-obvious' version supposedly only happens to men. Fred Sanford's "I'm coming to join you Elizabeth!" isn't what we as women should expect. (For those not of my generation, please look up Fred Sanford online.)

For me, the hardest part was admitting to myself that I needed to get to a doctor. For a week and a half, I had been experiencing occasional crushing pain in the center of my chest, under and on either side of my sternum, and along the underside of my left arm. It was exacerbated when I exerted myself. I chalked the pain up to a recent shoulder injury and intercostal pain from planks and pushups. Indigestion too, as sometimes a couple of antacids helped. I had been told that getting into one's 50s was a game changer, that getting back into shape and healing took a small eternity. Life was harder on the body. Boy, did that seem to be the case. My 50s were kicking my ass. I was frequently out of breath and felt tired all the time. I was baffled as to how a new decade could flip a switch and make me feel old so fast.

Chest pain, left arm pain, easily out of breath and tired all the time. Culled from the herd of my clouded thoughts, it sounds obvious. “Hey Andrea, get to the hospital! You're having a heart attack!” Nope. I was trying very hard to will it away.

The day I went to the hospital, there was no more denying I needed help. My body had two words for my brain, and they weren't "Merry Christmas.” I had been out running errands. I had my dog Greta with me and planned to take her for a walk in Whittaker Woods when I was done. As I got into my car at the Intervale post office, I told Greta I was sorry we weren't going for a walk. I really felt like crap. I decided that it was time to suck it up and go to the Conway Walk-In. As I began driving in that direction, I started going downhill fast. The pain had spread into the left side of my neck. I knew I wouldn't make it to Conway. I would lose consciousness before getting there. Instead of continuing south, I took that left turn up to Memorial Hospital. Even as I drove up the hill, I was debating, "Emergency Room or Hospital Walk-In?" Denial is a powerful thing.

I walked into the ER and said those fateful words, "I think I am having a heart attack." I began to search for my insurance card. Here I was, thinking they had to have that before treating me. Nope, there was some common sense in the world of health insurance in this instance. Somehow I made it to the gurney they guided me to under my own power.

The ER staff worked quickly and efficiently. When I heard the words "You've had a heart attack" come from someone unseen on the other side of the crowded room, I felt panic. I will never forget the face of the compassionate doctor who gently told me what was happening, that they were sending me to Maine Med by ambulance. I will always be grateful for his kindness. I was terrified.

I was able to call a friend to ask for help getting Greta home. It turned out that some of my closest friends just happened to be together nearby; they came to the hospital immediately. Their presence helped dissuade some of my fears. It's a blur, how my family and friends came to be there and subsequently, Maine Med.

Three stents and three weeks later my world had changed dramatically. I continue to be amazed by how much better I feel. I have not felt this strong in years. It takes a lot more effort to get me out of breath now. Sometimes I run up the stairs breathing through my nose, just because I can. It’s delightful.

I have written about so much more than how to detect a heart attack. I continue to live very much in the moment. I am kinder toward myself. My heart attack has changed my life for the better on so many levels.

My advice is to be gentle with yourself. It's OK to ask help. If you have fears and concerns, see your doctor. Trust me, you're worth it.

For more information on the Heart Health & Wellness Center at Memorial Hospital, call 603-356-5461 or visit them online at www.memorialhospitalnh.org.

About Memorial Hospital

Memorial Hospital is a not-for-profit 25-bed Critical Access Hospital located in North Conway, NH, and is a member of the MaineHealth family. Its hospital services include a 24-hour emergency department, surgery center, clinical laboratory, heart health & wellness programs, family birthing center, sleep center, oncology, chemotherapy and infusion services and the Miranda Center for Diabetes. Physician practices include primary care and family medicine, women's health, orthopedics and sports medicine. The Merriman House, a 45-bed nursing home specializing in Alzheimer's and other memory disorders, is also located on the hospital campus. Together, our staff and providers are committed to meeting the health needs of the Mt. Washington Valley and surrounding communities by collaborating with community partners in the delivery of accessible, comprehensive, compassionate, and quality health care.