Heart of the Matter

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Stephanie Chan had type-2 diabetes, high blood pressure and high cholesterol all at age 16. She was overweight, fatigued and had tightness in her upper body. Eight years later, at the age of 24, Chan drove herself to Johns Hopkins Hospital with chest pain, which she had been experiencing for eight months. After examining her arteries, doctors detected 85 to 95 percent blockages. Chan was kept there for seven days to undergo surgery.

Chan, who now lives in Brooklyn, realizes that by monitoring her condition, she could have prevented the surgery. “I was just fed up with not doing anything,” Chan said. “It didn’t even occur to me I could very well not be standing here today. Only recently did I have this moment of, ‘Hold the phone, I could have died.’”

Most of us don’t realize the prevalence of heart disease among women. The numbers are startling: About 1 in 3 American women die from some form of cardiovascular illness, compared to 1 in 30 from breast cancer, according to the AHA. Only 1 in 5 females, however, believe that the illness poses a more serious threat than other conditions.

This is partly because, when cardiovascular disease sets in, typically in older women, the patients’ symptoms are clouded by other problems, such as cancer and osteoporosis. “It’s often not a clean and neat diagnosis,” Nicolas DuBois, a physician at Park East Cardiovascular, said. “Women aren’t taking as proactive a role as they should be.”

Launched in 2004, the “Go Red For Women” campaign has already seen tangible results. Nearly 55 percent of women who participate in “Go Red” exercise more frequently than they did previously, and an estimated 60 percent have since modified their diets, according to the AHA. More than 40 percent have been evaluated for cholesterol, and a third have raised concern of the disease to their doctors.

To commemorate “Go Red,” Macy’s in Herald Square held a casting call last Friday for volunteers to represent future campaigns by sharing their health stories or otherwise pitching in. Heart screening for participants was also offered for nine hours on the eighth floor of the Macy’s building.

Broadway actress and singer Michelle Williams joined the AHA to celebrate the red-lighting of Empire State Building on Friday. The iconic tower exuded a red glow through Sunday, Feb. 7, to memorialize National Wear Red Day.

Though cardiovascular disease is uncommon in women as young as Stephanie Chan, it claims the lives of approximately 450,000 American women each year—or one death per minute.

On Friday, Feb. 5, Park East Cardiovascular (PECV), a private cardiology group practice for adults, organized its first in-house event in honor of “Go Red for Women: National Wear Red” day, founded by the American Heart Association (AHA) to foster awareness of women’s cardiovascular disease. Organizations and clinics nationwide held casting calls, luncheons and screenings.

Physicians and nurses dressed in red T-shirts conducted free blood pressure tests at the Park East Cardiovascular offices at 158 E. 84th Street. Around 40 people, mostly women, dropped by to get their blood pressure checked and to pick up pamphlets and red T-shirts of their own. Participants also consulted two guest AHA ambassadors for medical advice.

“It was low key. There were smiles all around,” said DuBois.

The number of heart disease patients has risen over the past few decades, in part because people are living longer. “If you live long enough, you’ll get some form of it,” DuBois explained. “The longer you avoid other diseases, the more likely you’ll end up living with heart disease.” Older women who have heart attacks are more likely than older men to die from them within a few weeks.

Female symptoms of cardiovascular illness are generally milder and more diffuse than men’s. As DuBois explained, “You’re more likely to associate chest pain, a typical male symptom, with heart disease, than general bodily discomfort,”

This is why, historically, women with signs of oncoming heart disease were often misdiagnosed as having hysteria or other nervous disorders. Medical advances later indicated that symptoms of heartburn or seemingly innocuous aches might be precursors to a serious heart problem.

“One of my patients had a chronic pain in her jaw,” said Ira Blaufarb, another cardiologist at Park East Cardiovascular. “It took a while for people, myself included, to figure out that it was indeed a symptom of her heart disease.”

Preventative treatment can go a long way. DuBois recommended that all women over the age of 35 check their blood pressure, cholesterol and blood sugar levels at least once a year. “If you know your levels, you can take steps to control them,” DuBois said.

DuBois advises against using hormone replacements to remedy hot flashes or osteoporosis, since they likely increases one’s risk for heart attacks, and, more prominently, breast cancer.

Cutting salt, he added, can save hundreds of thousands of lives. “It prevents heart disease, and it may even be more powerful at preventing strokes.” If the worldwide blood pressure average dropped by even a few points, he added, thousands fewer people would suffer strokes.

Heart disease is often overlooked in women because “it’s not as sexy as breast cancer,” Blaufarb explained. But cardiovascular disease isn’t a woman’s disease, as breast cancer is, he said. It’s a people’s disease. After all, February is American Heart Month, not Women’s Heart Month.

Now, at age 28, Stephanie Chan leads an active, hearty lifestyle. She watches what she eats, swims and is preparing for six half-marathons and one full marathon in 2010. An AHA spokesperson since 2008, she appears regularly at functions around the country to share her story and to offer medical advice.

“The person who was hospitalized to get artery stents was a different person,” she said. “I feel healthy. I have to take advantage of a negative situation and speak up about it, so I can hopefully save somebody else’s life.”

Even though you don’t have any symptoms of heart disease, you may still be at risk for a heart attack. But how do you find out?

Lenox Hill Hospital has announced a new interactive online questionnaire to help you evaluate your risk of having a heart attack. The program is called HeartAware, and it is being released just in time for National Heart Month.

To find out your risk, log onto the Lenox Hill Hospital website (www.lenoxhillhospital.org), and start answering questions regarding your family history, cholesterol, blood pressure, lifestyle and habits. At the end of the questionnaire, you will receive a personalized report telling your risk level: low, moderate, high or critical.

If your assessment shows an increased risk for heart disease, you will be invited to receive a free initial health screening from the hospital that includes blood pressure, blood sugar and cholesterol testing.

“Heart disease and strokes are very much preventable,” said Gary Roubin, chairman of the department of cardiovascular medicine. “Therefore, it is important to understand your risk for heart disease and how to prevent it before a debilitating event occurs.”

Coronary heart disease causes about one in five deaths and is the leading cause of death in the United States.

For more information regarding HeartAware, call 1-877-Heartbeat or log onto www.lenoxhillhospital.org.

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