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Take Care of Your Heart

By Mellanie Hills

Reprinted from Women in Technology International

Did you know that February is not only the month with Valentine's Day, it's also Heart Month? The goal is to raise awareness of heart disease, including the symptoms, the toll it takes, and how to prevent it. Heart disease was traditionally thought, even in the medical community, to be an older man's disease, but we now know that's no longer the case. It impacts everyone, even young people. With women at work in equal numbers to men, and with equal stresses, we're all now equally vulnerable. In fact, women (and men) that carry a disproportionate share of the home and family responsibilities - the double whammy - may be more vulnerable.

This year, the American Heart Association, which funds heart disease research and education, will sponsor a number of Heart Month events. For example, February 6 is "Wear Red Day", where companies and organizations let employees wear red or jeans for a $5 donation to the American Heart Association. The "Go Red For Women" program will raise awareness that heart disease is the #1 killer of women, including the little-known fact that heart disease takes ten times more women than breast cancer.

Our best strategy is prevention because heart disease is forever. Having first-hand experience over this past year, I know that once you have it, you can no longer get individual medical coverage because you're more at risk for future heart problems. And subsequent to my near-fatal heart problems early last year, I've also experienced atrial fibrillation, which is a quivering of the heart, along with blood clots, which could have been fatal since most blood clots go to the brain as a stroke. (Stroke is the #3 killer of women.) The scary thing is that both happened within 12 hours of flying. I'm feeling very lucky, but don't want to tempt fate.

I've just participated in the taping of a PBS show called "Heart Disease: The Silent Killer", featuring 4 prominent cardiologists. Heart disease is called the silent killer because you can go along for many years thinking that you're just fine, and then boom, it's too late. This is especially true for women. Men typically experience the proverbial "elephant on the chest", along with profuse sweating, when having a heart attack. Those are symptoms that are hard to ignore. Women, in contrast, often have such subtle symptoms that we may not even recognize them. It may be something as subtle as simple pain in the jaw or between the shoulder blades, or may even mimic heartburn. Because they're so subtle, women frequently don't get to the hospital in time, and as a result, for many women, the first symptom may in fact be a heart attack or death. We can stop this sneaky, insidious killer through being aware and through taking action.

As I speak to corporations and other organizations, I'm always asked lots of questions, such as:

  1. How can I know if I'm at risk?
  2. What tests do I need?
  3. How can I find out if my symptoms relate to my heart?

Heart Month is an excellent time to find out the answers to these questions and to take action. What are some of the things that we can do?

  1. Learn the symptoms and risk factors. A recent study of female heart attack survivors found that most remembered experiencing sleeplessness and fatigue within the month before their heart attacks. And while it's not a classic risk factor, stress is starting to look like it may play a role in heart disease, and who among us is not under some kind of stress? African American women may be especially vulnerable, and have an even higher risk of death from heart disease since a recent study found that they may produce less of the chemical nitric oxide, which is needed to improve blood flow for coping with stressful situations.
  2. Discuss any symptoms or concerns with your doctor at your next visit, or schedule that physical that you haven't quite found time to get around to. If you don't get answers and solutions from your doctor, seek a second opinion. Some doctors were trained when heart disease wasn't a woman's issue, so they don't know what to look for in women and may mistake your symptoms as simply being something else. What your doctor doesn't know can hurt you, so it's important for us to be proactive in our own health care.
  3. Get your cholesterol checked. It's a simple blood test. If your total cholesterol is above 200, your doctor may prescribe a cholesterol-lowering statin drug. Statins are considered so beneficial for most of the population that some doctors only half-jokingly suggest that we should put them in our water. Statins are available only by prescription, and can be expensive.
  4. You may need other tests, or a more sophisticated cholesterol screening, to identify your good (HDL) and bad (LDL) cholesterol levels. For example, when I was in the hospital with a 95% blockage of my artery, my good and bad cholesterol levels were just fine, so we did a special screening to separate out the components of the bad cholesterol to see if one was out of kilter and the rest were masking it. That wasn't the case, and my cholesterol was fine. Such anomalies have led doctors to wonder about the reliability of cholesterol as a marker of heart disease. Newer tests, such as Homocystene and C-Reactive Protein, hold great promise for identifying heart disease risk, but are not yet widely in use.
  5. If you're experiencing symptoms, what tests can indicate whether or not they're heart-related? Your doctor can administer a simple and quick EKG (electrocardiogram). If it's abnormal, as mine was, the next step is a stress test with ultrasound. Stress tests are more expensive, but also more telling, and are not invasive. If a stress test indicates a problem, the next step is probably cardiac catheterization, which is highly reliable, but also invasive. For this, the doctor places a tiny slit in the artery in your upper leg, inserts a catheter into the artery, and pumps in dye to watch the blood flow via a special screen. (Don't worry, you're under anesthesia and won't feel it.) It was through this process that we identified my blockage. There are other tests as well, but these are the most common.

To learn more, please make a note to watch "Heart Disease: The Silent Killer". If you're in the Dallas area, it will air on PBS on February 8, 2004 at noon (McCuistion Program). If you're elsewhere, you can get the scheduled airing for PBS stations around the country by checking my web site ( once that information is available, or automatically if you are a subscriber to my e-zine.

To protect your health, stay up-to-date on the latest in health research. Yes, I know it's hard to do - you have too much on your plate already. My complimentary e-zine can help you keep up with the latest research, and there's a list of great health and medical resources. The life you save may be your own, and lots of people need you. Happy Heart Month!

Mellanie True Hills is The Health & Productivity Revitalizer. She coaches individuals to create healthy lifestyles that revitalize their health, and works with organizations to create healthy workplaces that transform productivity. She is now a featured columnist for WITI, and will be speaking at the February 9, 2004 kickoff of the new Austin, Texas chapter.

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Copyright 2004 Mellanie True Hills Company.  All Rights Reserved.

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