Women-specific risks for heart disease and stroke include pregnancy complications, physical and emotional stress, and poor sleep patterns, according to the Journal of American Heart Association’s 2021 Go Red for Women special.
Sharifah Abdullah from Jacksonville can relate.
In 2010 she had a difficult pregnancy. Myoma tumors were so painful that she had difficulty sleeping. In 2018 she got breathlessness at night and often couldn’t sleep. After several doctor visits, medication that didn’t work, and her refusal to accept the diagnosis that fear was to blame, she was told that she had a leaking heart valve and needed open heart surgery.
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But Abdullah lived to tell the story.
And she has a message for other women.
“Listen to your body,” she said. “I did it because I listened to my body. … Not so many people. You can’t brush it off and deal with it later. It never comes later.”
Heart disease risks specific to women
The special edition of the American Heart Association Journal, published online this year, cited several research studies showing that women are exposed to many women-specific risks for heart disease and stroke. Pregnancy, physical and emotional stress, sleep patterns, and numerous physiological aspects “are among the many unique factors that contribute to increased cardiovascular risk for women, according to the journal.”
The Journal’s Editor-in-Chief Barry London said, “Although cardiovascular disease is the leading cause of death in both men and women, women are less likely to be diagnosed and receive preventive and aggressive treatment than men. Illnesses affect women are critical to improving outcomes and saving lives. “
Pamela Rama, a cardiologist with Baptist Heart Specialists, said she was familiar with the report. She said a detailed history of pregnancy-related complications is an important part of evaluating our patients.
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“We in the cardiac community recognize pregnancy as a cardiometabolic stress test because there are significant physiological changes during those nine months to accommodate the growing fetus,” said Rama.
The heart adapts to increased heart needs in many ways, she said.
“Heart rate usually increases and blood pressure decreases in the first trimester of pregnancy and returns to normal in the second trimester,” said Rama. “Not to mention the hormonal changes that come with it.”
Rama advised women to reduce their risk of heart disease by adopting a “heart-healthy lifestyle” such as: B. Don’t smoke, be active, and maintain a healthy weight. Women who had gestational hypertension during pregnancy should limit their salt intake and monitor their blood pressure for the development of high blood pressure. If you have had gestational diabetes, your blood sugar should be monitored.
“Make sure you let your doctor know if you’ve had pregnancy-related complications,” she said.
Note the knowledge gained
Rama also recommended women to learn Abdullah’s lesson.
“You know your body best, and women can have atypical symptoms,” she said. “If you feel like something is wrong with you, insist that you be screened for possible heart disease. Never accept fear as a diagnosis.
“I always tell my colleagues that anxiety should never be your top diagnosis when someone comes to you with symptoms of breathlessness, palpitations, drowsiness, or chest pain,” said Rama. “There are heart diseases that can be life-threatening and yet preventable.
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If necessary, she said, “Get a second opinion. This is your right as a patient and it can save your life.”
37-year-old African American Abdullah said she had no idea of possible links between pregnancy, insomnia and heart disease. She’s just happy to be alive, she said.
Her medical journey began at the age of 22 with the fibroids, which initially caused heavy menstrual bleeding. Medication stopped this problem. But when she became pregnant in 2010, she said she caused “so much pain” and increased her size.
“You would have thought I had twins,” she said.
In 2012 the fibroids were removed. Six years later, at night, her heart raced and she had difficulty breathing. Abdullah said her GP said “it was just fear” and prescribed one drug, then another.
“I believed something else was wrong with me,” she said. “I’m still gasping for breath.”
A cardiologist initially agreed to the anxiety assessment, but then prescribed a sleep monitor that provided no responses and an echocardiogram that did. The machine used sound waves to create images of a heart and showed the leaking valve.
“Blood flowed backwards instead of forwards,” said Abdullah. “I had to go through all of this. I know my body. I was so happy.”
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The news that she needed open heart surgery was terrifying. She was told that without her, “your heart will deteriorate and you would likely die,” she said. “There was no way out.”
But eventually “knowing what it was” was a relief, she said after “not knowing if I would wake up if I went to sleep at night”.
Abdullah had the surgery in 2020 and is fine now. Her son, now 10, knows she had a medical problem but probably doesn’t understand the severity. Nor can he see what role he played in her recovery.
“I have a son I have to come home to,” she said. She fixed her heart so she would keep waking up in the morning and saying, “It’s a blessing.”
Beth Reese Cravey: (904) 359-4109, [email protected]
BY THE NUMBERS
• Cardiovascular disease is the number one killer of women, causing 1 in 3 deaths each year.
• 90 percent of women have one or more risk factors for developing heart disease.
• Of African American women aged 20 and over, 49 percent suffer from heart disease.
• Up to 20 percent of women experience health problems during pregnancy.
• Black women were three times more likely than Spanish women and 2.5 times more likely to die from pregnancy-related causes than white women.
HEART ATTACK SYMPTOMS FOR WOMEN
• Chest pain, but not always
• Pain or pressure in the lower chest or upper abdomen
• Jaw, neck or back pain
• nausea or vomiting
• Shortness of breath
• Extreme fatigue
Stroke Symptoms for Women
• numbness or weakness in the face, arm, or leg
• Problems speaking or understanding language
• Vision problems
• Problems walking or lack of coordination
• Severe headache with no known cause
• General weakness
• Disorientation and confusion or memory problems
• nausea or vomiting.
Source: American Heart Association
For more information on women and heart disease, visit goredforwomen.org. For more information on the First Coast Go Red digital celebration for women on May 14, please visit May 14. See bit.ly/334nFqa for more information.