Sometimes it is difficult to diagnose heart disease in women.
Ask Ginny Rau, a senior registered nurse at Brooksville Regional Hospital, and she will tell you her scary story.
"As caregivers, taking care of our husbands, family members and in my case patients as well, we women don't think our symptoms are important, and we have a tendency to neglect ourselves. Then all of a sudden, the symptoms escalate and you have to run for help. That is what happened in my case," Rau told a Go Red for Women and Heart Disease fashion show recently at Silverthorn Country Club in Brooksville.
"After putting up with several weeks of fatigue and shortness of breath, which I attributed to my never-ending work week, I had to be rushed to the hospital and had to undergo an emergency heart catheterization followed by a stent implant in a major artery. That saved my life."
Rau's case is not an isolated or unusual one. Often heart disease in women is missed or the diagnosis is delayed. Why? In many cases, their symptoms are atypical and the patients and sometimes the doctors, too, dismiss their fatigue, vague chest discomfort, shortness of breath, unexplained sweating and irregular heartbeats as psychosomatic symptoms. This is particularly true if they reported they had been under stress lately. Because of all these, men who come to the emergency department with similar symptoms may get faster and more aggressive treatment.
Clearly, we need to rectify this gender bias. Researchers on the subject agree there is a definite overlap of coronary heart disease and anxiety symptoms. Even with the higher prevalence of stress and anxiety among women, coronary heart disease should be ruled out first by physicians.
Also, the risk of heart disease in women is often underestimated, because they tend to develop it later than men, commonly after menopause. But that is changing too, with the changes in societal habits and customs. The younger ones with significant risk factors like hypertension, smoking, diabetes, obesity and high cholesterol levels are just as likely to suffer from heart disease as the elders. Hence young women should not feel they are immune to the disease.
By doing the right screening tests, we can identify who might be at higher risk. Recognition of this is very important, so appropriate preventive measures can be instituted, which include maintaining a normal weight, observing healthy eating habits, exercising regularly, controlling all risk factors as best as possible and, being compliant with all your medications.
Several thousands of women die every year from heart disease. This is indeed the No. 1 killer of American women, not breast or uterine cancer. And the uniqueness of women's heart disease needs emphasis.
That is why the American Heart Association launched the "Go Red for Women" movement in 2004. The red dress pin you see on your doctor's white coat or the nurse's uniform is the national symbol for awareness of heart disease in women. By joining the movement, you become part of the fight against heart disease.
So, wear red on any day in the month of February to show your support and make it your mission to stop heart disease in women and keep your loved ones healthy.
Dr. M.P. Ravindra Nathan, a cardiologist, is director of the Hernando Heart Clinic in Brooksville.