Awareness Still Needed to Prevent Heart Disease in Women

The American Heart Association celebrates its 10 year anniversary of its Go Red for Women campaign. Its goal is to spread awareness about heart disease in women. Sadly, women are still the No. 1 victims of heart disease.

“I think the Go Red campaign has gone a long way with raising women’s awareness,” said Michael Gitter, MD, cardiologist at Appleton Cardiology. He also sees patients in Waupaca and Wild Rose.

“But I am still impressed many women don’t recognize heart disease is their greatest health risk,” said Dr. Gitter, noting that women think breast cancer is the main killer of women.

Many think heart disease is a man’s disease but the reality is half of cardiac related deaths are women, said Carrie Chapman, MD, cardiologist at the Appleton Cardiology, who also sees patients at New London Family Medical Center and Shawano Medical Center. “Women are victims of heart disease just as much as men,” she said. “I think that is still not well known.”

Here is what local doctors want women need to know about heart disease.

Symptoms are not classic

A woman may not feel well and chalk it up to stress, lack of sleep, a bad meal or more. But there is a chance it could be heart related. “The great challenge is that women don’t get classic crushing pain in chest and left arm,” said Dr. Gitter. “The challenge with women is their symptoms can be non-specific and vague. That makes it very tough for them to know when to come to the emergency room.”

As more awareness is being raised, the attitude toward heart disease and women is changing, said Dr. Gitter. A generation ago, women might have been brushed off in the doctor’s office and sent home with valium. Those days have passed but still women are still ignoring the symptoms.

“They don’t seek help when they need to,” said Dr. Chapman.

Symptoms in women can be different in men. “The classic chest pressure, chest pain may not be so classic in women presenting heat disease,” said Dr. Chapman. Symptoms for women include:

  •          Fatigue
  •          Shortness of breath
  •          Flu-like symptoms

“It needs to be brought to their physicians attention,” said Dr. Chapman.

Women with risk factors are at great risk for heart disease

Risk factors include smoking, high cholesterol, high blood pressure, diabetes and a family history of heart disease with a parent or sibling. “Sedentary life style and obesity should be included as well,” said Dr. Chapman.

Too often patients have no clue those risk factors can lead to heart disease.

“If people are aware of their risks, they’ll be more in tune to their symptoms and seek help if they need it,” she said. “We tend not to go to our doctors unless something catastrophic is happening.”

The key to good heart health is taking care of yourself

“Most people now-a-days know risk factors,” said Dr. Gitter. “You have to be able to do something about it.”

Eating smarter and being active can save lives. “Ultimately we’d like everybody to be healthier,” he said, estimating “we could cut the entire national healthcare bill by 30 to 50 percent if people ate healthy and were active. People have to be willing to take some personal responsibility and take care of themselves.”

Women need to pay attention to their symptoms

Women often are too busy caring for others to take time for caring for themselves, said Dr. Chapman. “Women definitely tend to push their symptoms away,” she said. 

There can also be a bit of denial, too. “The key factor is all patients need to be followed by their primary care physicians,” said Dr. Chapman. “If you have any symptoms that are not typical, they do need to take it seriously and be evaluated.”


Break Out Box

Michael Gitter, MD, and Carrie Chapman, MD, said new technological advances are helping make detecting heart disease a little easier.

Next summer, Appleton Medical Center will have the newest generation CAT scanner in the emergency room “that will tell people if they have artery blockage,” said Dr. Gitter. “We’re adding new advance testing equipment to our ER in 2013 that will allow us to more accurately identify people with heart conditions.”

Currently, patients at New London Family Medical Center can make appointments for a coronary calcium score screening. This $50 test, available in New London, Appleton and Oshkosh, can diagnose heart disease before a single symptom occurs.

The test is a special type of CT scanning that can produce images to show if there are calcium deposits in the coronary arteries. The amount and location of calcium on the outside of the artery directly correlates with the amount and location of cholesterol build-up on the inside of the artery.

“A calcium score sheds a little bit of light on the coronary artery,” said Dr. Chapman.

The appointment is scheduled for a 15-minute time frame but the test itself is fast and there is minimal exposure to radiation. “It also helps doctor in determining how aggressive to treat somebody,” said Dr. Chapman. “It certainly helps guide us in what therapies should be initiated.”

The test is not for women less than 40 years or men less than 35 years old. “The information we get can be pretty powerful,” said Dr. Chapman. “I can’t tell you how many people we have caught with significant heart disease risk.”

To make an appointment for a coronary calcium score screening at New London Family Medical Center, call (920)531-2000.