Women can do anything men can do. And when it comes to heart disease women are breaking barriers.
More women than men die every year from heart disease and stroke, making it the leading cause of death for women.
“The good news is that 80 percent of cardiac events can be prevented with education and lifestyle changes,” says cardiologist Elizabeth Jackson, M.D., director of the Women’s Heart Program at the University of Michigan Frankel Cardiovascular Center and author of “An Ageless Woman’s Guide to Heart Disease.”
Campaigns like Go Red for Women, which celebrates National Wear Red Day on Feb. 6, inspires women to advocate for more research and swifter action for women’s heart health. Every minute a women dies from heart disease, and 1 in 3 women’s deaths are caused by heart disease.
Heart disease in women can be tricky to diagnose, because women’s symptoms are often atypical and less specific than men’s. Women are more likely to experience shortness of breath and palpitations, and less likely to have the red-flag symptom of acute chest pain that radiates to the jaw and down the left arm.
Whatever the symptoms, it’s important for women to pay attention and take them seriously, especially if they have risk factors for cardiovascular disease. Some of the key health indicators for cardiovascular disease include high blood pressure, high cholesterol, obesity and high blood sugar.
Everything associated with heart disease seems to be more dangerous for women than for men. Women are more likely to have recurrent chest pain and repeated hospital stays after a heart attack. Smoking, diabetes and high blood pressure are particularly deadly to women.
“We hope to challenge women to know their risk for heart disease and take action to reduce their personal risk,” says Claire Duvernoy, M.D., chief of cardiology at VA Ann Arbor Healthcare and an interventional cardiologist at the U-M Frankel Cardiovascular Center.
Meet three women with heart disease who are standing together for what is the fight for their lives.
Early stroke inspires a movement
Pam Mace, of Gross Ile, may not look like a stroke survivor but she is. It would be a year before doctors figured out why the registered nurse and regular runner had a stroke at age 37. Her diagnosis of fibromuscular dysplaia would inspire her to start a movement around the rare vascular disease that affects women in the prime of their lives.
Patients with FMD often have malformed arteries that appear on imaging like a ‘string of beads,’ putting them at risk for artery blockages, hypertension, stroke, coronary artery dissection and aneurysm. Pam is executive director of Fibromuscular Dysplasia Society of America, and urges others with FMD to join the U.S. FMD research registry, to help better understand the disease and its treatment.
Knowing the signs, trusting your instincts
Deidre Todd’s health challenges began after the birth of her child in 2009 when she was 43. “I thought my exhaustion and fatigue were the result of being an older mom,” she says. A few months after her son’s birth, she was diagnosed with bronchitis, but she continued to feel weak and run down for months.
“I was in heart failure, but never associated my symptoms with a heart issue. I want to spread the message that women need to take care of themselves and know the signs of heart disease. Don’t dismiss your instincts.”
A Heart Hero takes off
Planning to go to work the day after a suspicious echocardiogram, a doctor called Aimee Bingham at her home near Jackson, Mich., to say she would instead be in surgery to repair a large aortic aneurysm. A dissection or rupture of the aneurysm can lead to death so rapidly that the person often doesn’t reach a hospital in time.
As she left for the hospital, back in 2010, she told her two boys, a second-grader and eighth-grader, that she was a fighter. During a 10-hour surgery, a surgical team at the U-M Frankel Cardiovascular Center repaired her aorta and replaced her aortic valve.
Aimee would run her way back to health, reaching goals she hadn’t managed before because of exhaustion and discomfort. Nine months after open heart surgery she ran her first half-marathon, creating a group of Heart Heros who embrace healthy living and making good on her promise to her sons to be a fighter.
Take the next steps
- Know your risk for heart disease.
- Read frequently asked questions about ICDs.
- Learn more about peripartum cardiomyopathy, a heart risk for new moms.
The Women’s Heart Program at the University of Michigan Frankel Cardiovascular Center is a vibrant research and patient care program focused on prevention, diagnosis and treatment of heart disease — caring for women from their childbearing years through menopause and beyond. The comprehensive program includes cardiac rehabilitation, stress management, nutrition and exercise counseling and diagnostic testing.