February is American Heart Month and a great time to address the issue of women and heart disease. It’s the leading killer of women, causing 400,000 deaths annually or one out of three women. Experts say that the medical profession often doesn’t play fair when dealing with the disease, giving men preferential treatment when it comes to heart health.
Dr. Kevin Campbell, a renowned cardiologist from Raleigh, N.C., and author of “Women and Cardiovascular Disease: Addressing Disparities in Care," tells questsin that “women with heart disease are undertreated and underserved.”
Campbell says that more women die from heart disease than men every year and that men are often treated more aggressively for the disease than their female counterparts.
“Signs and symptoms may be different in women,” he says. “While women can have traditional heart attack symptoms, they can also experience somewhat vague and non-specific symptoms such as back pain, nausea, flu-like symptoms and even feelings of dread.
“That’s why sometimes it is more difficult to diagnose,” he adds.
A case in point is soap opera star Susan Lucci, who brushed aside her symptoms of tightness in her chest until it got so bad “it felt like an elephant pressing down on my chest.”
Fortunately, a store manager where she was shopping offered to take her to a nearby hospital where she met her husband’s cardiologist.
A CT scan revealed a 90 percent blockage in her heart’s main artery, often called “the widow maker” and a 70 percent blockage in another branch. The cardiologist inserted two stents into her arteries to increase the blood flow back to her heart.
“I’m lucky to be alive,” she told People magazine.
At 72, Susan Lucci is the picture of health. The actress strictly adheres to her Pilates regimen and eats a heart-healthy Mediterranean diet.
Despite her heart healthy lifestyle, Lucci, who played Erica Kane for 41 years on All My Children, was at risk due to her family history of heart disease. Her dad, Victor Lucci, had a heart attack in his late forties.
Dr. Holly Anderson, her cardiologist who is the Associate Professor of Medicine at the Ronald O. Perelman Heart Institute in New York, explains:
“Her risk was due to her father’s arteriosclerosis, a condition that causes plaque buildup, which can cause blockage and hardening of the arteries.”
Campbell is adamant that women take a proactive stance maintaining their heart health.
“Women must know their risk factors and make sure that their physicians know them as well. These include family history, high blood pressure, high cholesterol, obesity, diabetes and smoking
“A woman’s greatest health risk is from heart disease—not breast or uterine cancer.”
“As a woman you think about breast cancer, not a heart attack,” says Lucci who wanted to share her story in order to help others. “Every EKG I had was great. My blood pressure was on the lower end of normal.”
She now serves as a volunteer and spokesperson for the American Heart Association’s Go Red for Women Campaign.
“We often put ourselves on the back burner. But if your body is telling you something, we need to pay attention.”