By: Helen Robert
February is Heart Month, and February 13 is #WearRed day, a day dedicated to recognize and support the women in our lives who suffer with heart disease, and to advocate to reduce the gaps in cardiac science and care for women around the world.
Did you know that heart disease kills more women than all cancers put together? It affects 2/3 of women in their lifetime, and kills 1/3 of us.
It can indeed happen to you, so please learn the signs, and believe it. If you think you are having a heart attack, you just might be.
In 2015, I was a very healthy 49 year old, yet I woke up one morning and had a spontaneous heart attack while checking morning emails (seriously, the S in my diagnosis, “SCAD” actually stands for ”Spontaneous”). I had never spent a night in hospital, never had any surgery, and found myself in an ambulance, the Emergency Room, and ICU in quick succession.
5 years ago, SCAD was considered very rare, however, due to more research and better angiographic imaging, it is finally becoming more “known”. SCAD is an acute condition that can be fatal if you don’t get help fast. You can’t see it coming, you can’t prevent it and it accounts for up to 40% of heart attacks in women under 50. 90% of the time, SCAD affects women, which may be one reason that until recently no-one bothered to research it, although to be fair, they could only find it on autopsy until imaging tools got precise enough to find it in the living.
When we think of heart disease, we are actually thinking of Coronary Artery Disease (CAD), which is where cholesterol creates plaque that blocks your arteries, and that does account for about 80% of heart attacks, but there are other conditions and situations that can cause heart attacks as well. We have been conditioned to think of older women, maybe overweight, they don’t exercise, they smoke, eat unhealthy foods. The reality is that while these risk factors are true, and living well will help protect you from CAD, there are other risk factors that we can’t control. Things like genetics, hormones, high stress, physical strain, pregnancy and childbirth, autoimmune or inflammatory conditions can all put us at higher risk of CAD or other heart conditions.
I am very fortunate to have experienced wonderful treatment from the University of Ottawa Heart Institute and their Cardiac Rehabilitation team were instrumental in helping me recover successfully. I participated fully in every support recommended to me, and later trained as a Peer Support Facilitator with the innovative Women@Heart Support Program, designed specifically for women with heart problems. I learned a lot from this program: some things made me sad, and some made me mad, but ultimately they made me a passionate advocate for change.
Let me share the things that made me mad, and fuelled my commitment to changes, both for myself and for others. What I want you to know………….
1) Until about 20 years ago, almost all medical research and testing was based on men. Female hormones “confused” the results. This means that women react differently to medications, and we are not always taken seriously because “it’s not listed as a side effect”. This is changing, but we have a lot of ground to make up!
2) Women often have different symptoms than men, and because these symptoms didn’t come up during the men’s research, they are considered “atypical”, even though they affect more than half the population! Many doctors are not even aware of these differences, and might therefore send a woman home with anti-anxiety medication or indigestion pills. I have met women who have coded in the hospital parking lot after being discharged with indigestion!
3) Women are less likely to be recommended for certain treatments, procedures or cardiac rehabilitation than men.
4) Women recover better with social and emotional supports, which are only just emerging in more progressive rehabilitation programs.
5) People think heart disease is a men’s problem. As women, we don’t generally believe we might have a heart problem, we don’t understand our risks, and we don’t put ourselves first. We also decline supports like cardiac rehab because we “don’t have time”.
My ask on #WearRed day is that you pay attention to your bodies, stand up for yourselves and ask for and accept help to recover. If you think you might be having a heart attack, believe it might be true, and call 911. Advocate for basic blood tests and EKG to check for cardiac stress, and if you do have a heart attack, then ask for cardiac rehab if it is not offered and take the time to go!
And help raise awareness of this really important issue by wearing red, and sharing pictures on Social Media with #WearRed and #HerHeartMatters. Get your friends and family involved – together we can change the world!
Follow me on Twitter: @HelenLRobert
Suggested video: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=uS12vQThGT4
Suggested resources: US: Mayo Clinic – Women’s Heart Clinic: https://www.mayoclinic.org/departments-centers/womens-heart-clinic/overview/ovc-20442061
Canada: University of Ottawa Heart institute: http://yourheart.ca