It’s February. And for true romantics, the highlight of the month is Valentine’s Day. Your heart is aflutter! But is it love–or atrial fibrillation?
That’s a particularly timely question because February is also American Heart Month. Heart disease and women, alas, are an all too common combination. Indeed, the most recent figures from the American Heart Association show that 419,730 women died of cardiovascular disease in 2008, compared with 392,210 men. Although these numbers are down from previous years, heart disease remains the leading cause of death for both women and men in the United States. Bigger even than any kind of cancer. The problem is, most symptoms for women go unnoticed until it’s either too late or something happens to make us aware.
Case in point. Although I claim I was skiing down the north face of Mount Everest, truth be told, I had a rather stupid fall running in flip-flops a few weeks ago. The result was a fractured and dislocated fibula, which required serious surgery. Even scarier, though, when I took my pre-op tests, the EKG indicated that I had had a septal infarction. A heart attack? Me? I was incredulous. As you probably have read in a previous column, here I have been nagging my husband, The Lawyer with the three stents, about how his eating habits have contributed to his low HDL’s. And I’m the one who had a heart attack?
Happily, it turned out there was no cause for alarm—just the way my heart is positioned in my chest. But what if I hadn’t been so lucky? What if I had a heart condition that I wasn’t aware of, like attorney, author and TV personality Star Jones, a spokesperson for the AHA’s Go Red for Women campaign. Star started experiencing unusual symptoms in 2008. “Something didn’t feel right,” she says. “I was really tired. I was short of breath and experiencing intense and frequent heart palpitations. Little did I know that these symptoms were the early warning signs of heart disease.” Her doctors’ recommendation: open-heart surgery. “When I heard what they were going to do, I seriously considered not having it,” she says. “Needless to say, my girlfriends, family and doctors talked some sense into me and I made the decision to move forward.”
But Star’s story does have a happy ending. “I made it through surgery without any complications. As part of my recovery, I elected to do cardiac rehab, and it was the second best decision of my life. The discipline necessary to strengthen your heart after open-heart surgery is relentless and exhausting, but so worth it! “I learned late in life that my health is my greatest asset,” she concludes. “For as the proverb says, She who has health has hope, and she who has hope has everything.”
My own horoscope recently read: What happens over the next few weeks may be a bit chaotic, but if you stand back from the details, you will see that everything in life has meaning. So the meaning for me, thanks to the EKG, was to focus this column on women’s heart issues. To that end, the following are 12 more suggestions for making your heart beat even Better Than Before.
Get screened. Women should be screened and treated more aggressively at a younger age because heart disease affects them more seriously, it seems, than men, says Dr. Ramin Manshadi, board-certified cardiologist and author of The Wisdom of Heart Health: Attaining a Healthy and Robust Heart in Today’s Modern World. “More women die of heart attacks than men within the same age groups,” he says.“In fact, when women show up with their first heart attack, 52 percent of them die from sudden cardiac arrest, compared with 42 percent for men. Some of the explanation behind this is that, the disease has actually progressed further without their necessarily being aware of it.” Women tend not to have the classic symptoms for a heart attack like pains that radiate to the left side and come on with exertion; their symptoms could be as diffuse as sudden fatigue or just diffuse sweating. Women also tend to have higher cholesterol than men, and they also tend to have lower HDL, the good cholesterol and high triglycerides tend to cause more blockages and heart attacks in women.
Be cool. “It is critical to make the connection between your emotional health and the health of your heart,” says Harvard psychiatrist Dr. Paul Hammerness, coauthor of Organize Your Mind, Organize Your Life. At its extreme, heart injuries and heart failure can occur during severe emotional stress. This is called “stress cardiomyopathy,” or “broken-heart syndrome.” Less dramatic but far more common examples, he claims, include the well-known impact of anxiety and depression on heart disease and recovery from heart disease. The relationship between mood/anxiety and heart disease appears to be a “dose-response relationship,” meaning greater sadness and anxiety lead to greater heart disease and/or worse heart outcomes. Therefore, one key step in caring for your heart is caring for your emotional health and working diligently to reduce levels of stress and demoralization in your life. A calm, organized day can lead not only to improvements in emotional health but also to greater efficiency, with more time to exercise, buy fresh food, get to bed on time. At the end of the day, a calm, organized life may save your life.
Cut the sugar. Yes, we all know by now what we should and shouldn’t eat for heart health. That means focusing on nutritious meals that include minimal amounts of animal products and adding lots of fruits, vegetables, whole grains and low-cholesterol sources of protein (e.g., beans, tofu, nuts, lentils). But did you know that drinking two or more sugar-sweetened beverages a day may expand a woman’s waistline and increase her risk for heart disease and diabetes? According to research presented at the American Heart Association’s Scientific Sessions 2011, women who drank more than two sugar-sweetened drinks a day had increasing waist sizes but weren’t necessarily gaining weight, reports Dr. Christina Shay, lead author of the study and assistant professor at the University of Oklahoma Health Sciences Center in Oklahoma City. “These women also developed high triglycerides, and women with normal blood glucose levels more frequently went from having a low risk to a high risk for developing diabetes over time.” This, in turn, put them at higher risk for a heart attack.
Measure your steps. “Staying active to keep your heart as healthy as possible is essential,” emphasizes Harvard physiatrist Dr. Julie Silver, author ofYou Can Heal Yourself. “Though it may seem trivial, walking is a relatively complex process that helps improve balance, strength, and endurance throughout the body.” One way to know how active you are is to get a pedometer, she suggests, and begin to record how many steps you are taking each day. At first, all you are doing is figuring out how active you are during the day. With this as your baseline, you can set short-term and long-term goals that involve increasing the number of steps you take. Usually, a reasonable initial short-term goal is to increase the average number of steps by one thousand steps per day. “The goal for active healthy people is 10,000 steps per day, so consider this number when you are making your long-term goals,” she concludes. Note: It’s important to check with your doctor before you increase your activity level, especially if you have a heart condition.
Unlock your sixth sense. New York City skin care specialist and registered nurse Janice Pastorek, whose patients include some of the world’s most exquisite women, tells me that my greatest beauty tool is my heart. “It can guide you toward better choices, better health and, as a result, a better appearance. In the mad rush of your busy life, there is often a failure to feel your way through decisions, yet that is how you are truly designed—to feel,” she contends. Janice says that the purpose of your senses is to allow you to interpret the information you see, hear, smell, touch and taste. Ultimately, you use that feedback to decide what you want. The most important, yet often ignored, sense is how you feel emotionally. This sixth sense belongs to your heart. No matter what you want—power, money, experience, or beauty—you want it because you think you will feel better for having it. Feeling better is always the driving force. Your heart lets you know when you are making choices that will lead you to feeling good. How does this affect your beauty? “Your immune system responds directly to your emotions. The better you feel, the better you heal. And the result is an enhanced ability to generate your beauty from the inside out.”
Reduce your stress. Aside from diet and exercise, stress is one of the leading causes of heart problems. Dr. Michael N. D’Ambra, cardiac anesthesiologist at Boston’s Brigham and Women’s Hospital and associate professor at Harvard Medical School and author of The Soul of Medicine, uses iPods to reduce stress in patients, even when they are undergoing cardiac surgery. He recommends that before the surgery, patients make a playlist of the music they find calming. He also encourages inserting brief recordings of family members and loved ones in the playlist. “These recordings contain short statements of encouragement and affection. I found that repeating the statements throughout the playlist increases the calming effect.” Dr D’Ambra places headsets connected to the iPods on the patients before the induction of anesthesia and keeps them playing throughout the surgery and into the ICU. He has observed that most patients who take the time to do this wake up with a smile on their face.
It’s a family affair. “Having a healthy heart is a family effort,” says Dr. Coral Arvon, director of behavioral medicine at the Pritikin Longevity Center + Spa in Miami, Fla., which specializes in helping cardiac patients live better. “Every member should work toward a healthier lifestyle. Start by being more positive, and make it a point to walk, take yoga classes or even practice relaxation exercises together.” For example, sit with your palms up. Take two slow deep breaths, in through the nose and out through the mouth. Breathe in the word “calm,” and out the word “quiet.” You’ll slowly feel your shoulders begin to relax. Getting a good night’s sleep is also extremely important. To help, Dr. Arvon encourages everyone to keep a pad on his/her night tables to write down any concerns right before sleep. “Don’t look at them till breakfast,” she advises. “You will give yourself permission to have mind clarity and not worry about forgetting anything you have to do the next day.”
Listen to the beat. “Our heart is the center of our being, the drumbeat of our physicality and our constant reminder of time,” says interfaith minister Skye Ann Taylor. “When we speak from the heart, act from the heart, we are present, not looking away to the past or ahead to the future but grounded in this moment, this heartbeat. So when the heart, as an organ, has a physical problem, we find that time collapses around us, leaving us poised on the momentary beat of now, wondering about the inevitable betrayal we feel when our heart is not well. We become sick at heart and suffer from heartache so often in our challenging lives. Listen to the beat of your own drum, and turn your attention to those aspects of your life that have changed the rhythm, clogged it with sorrow or pain, torn it apart with stress. Heart attacks are major punctuation marks in life. Time to shift gears, change the diet in food and thought, adapt our daily routine and come home into our heart of hearts, steady, steady night and day, noticing the golden edge of glory in all things, including ourselves.”
Make a fashion statement. Be creative this Valentine’s Day and give a gift from the heart for the heart – a medical bracelet. There is no longer a need to be branded by a condition. Now you can choose something other than a plain silver chain with an ID plate. “This is a big step forward for those who need medical bracelets,” says Shelly Fisher, CEO of Medical ID Marketplace. “The greater thenumber of people wearing identification, the more common the bracelets become, thus making the stigma fromwearing them greatly diminished.” Select bracelets that come with custom engraving that not only fit your sense of style but also clearly inform EMT and first responders of your medical condition. (Note: Throughout the month of February, Medical ID Marketplace will be donating 20 percent of sales to the AHA’s Go Red For Women campaign.)
Oils are essential. “Creating a relaxing environment goes a long way in reducing stress, which is known to cause heart disease,” saysCharlynn Avery, an aromatherapist and educator for Aura Cacia, a national source for natural and organic essential oils. “And we can achieve reduced stress, balance, harmony, and relaxation in our homes simply by creating sacred spaces to meditate, breathe, and reflect—small moments that have immediate and long-term benefits.” Using essential oils will enhance the experience as the aromas stimulate the part of the brain that affects emotion. To relieve stress, drip two to five drops of chamomile onto a handkerchief, hold it under your nose, and breathe deeply. Or combine 18 drops of lavender with one ounce of water in a mister. Spray four times on your pillow before bedtime for a restful night. Charlynn also recommends purchasing an aromatherapy lamp, a ceramic vessel equipped with a small basin that holds a mixture of water and essential oil that is warmed from underneath by a candle. “Diffusing relaxing oils like chamomile, rose or sandalwood in the morning can enhance your mood for the entire day and beyond.”
Reduce your risk. According to Dr. Nisha Chandra-Strobos, chair of cardiology at Johns Hopkins Bayview Medical Center, even physicians need to be alert to the fact that a middle-aged, overweight woman with shortness of breath could just as easily be having heart disease rather than simply being out of shape. “Genetics contribute to heart disease,” she adds, “but women – and men – can reduce their risk by avoiding tobacco, exercising, maintaining a healthy weight and recognizing the symptoms.” So reward yourself by being proactive with your self care.
Ladies in red. February 3 is the 9th Annual National Wear Red Day! Millions of Americans across the country will wear red in an effort to raise awareness and join in the fight against heart disease, the number-one killer of women. Readers can go online to the American Heart Association’s Wear Red Dayhub to get resources for participating in National Wear Red Day, as well as learning about ways to donate to lifesaving research and educational programs that can help save lives by uncovering the truth about heart disease.