Women and heart health

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Testing the ticker:A patient undergoes a cardiac stress test to assess her heart’s response to exercise at the Center for Cardiovascular Medicine at Porter Regional Hospital. | Supplied photo

Cardiac problems in women can be sneaky.

“Women present the ‘classic’ symptoms differently than men,” according to Terri Gingerich, cardiovascular service line director at Porter Regional Hospital in Valparaiso.

“Typically people hear about the ‘elephant’ on the chest or tingling down the left arm. Women have more vague symptoms such as nausea, vomiting, fatigue and back pain.”

Symptoms like those occur often and aren’t immediately indicative of heart problems, so access to information and screening facilities is important. Porter Regional Hospital opened the Center for Cardiovascular Medicine in August 2012, and since then has been a one-stop shop for the community and heart patients.

“We wanted patients to have one place that they could get heart-related services, whether it’s an EKG, screening or heart catheterization,” Gingerich said.

The center houses 16 physicians across several related services including diagnostics, interventional procedures, vascular surgery, stroke-related care and rehabilitation.

“We try to combine the experts and foster a multidisciplinary approach. We’ve invested time and attention to building this center to help keep people healthier.”

The center also hosts a variety of educational programming including free community talks. The talks are held in a setting where the public can ask experts questions about heart health-related illnesses, without having to schedule an appointment. This past February, as part of American Health Month, the center hosted four community talks that were highly attended, Gingerich noted.

“Things change so quickly when it comes to heart health and medicine, and having the experts here to keep up with the evidence is really important for the community,” she said.

The center and its staff have to keep up with the increasing occurrence of heart problems, too.

“We’re starting to see changes in women of younger and younger age. The prevalence of hypertension has certainly gone up. Body-mass index has gone up, so has hypertension. And now, one in three women die of heart disease every year.”

There are some female-specific things that increase risk of heart-related problems. Gingerich said that the American Heart Association has done a good job bringing these issues more visibility through its website (at heart.org) and other education campaigns. The combination of birth control pills and smoking in increase the risk. There is also an increased risk in postmenopausal women. However, much of the female-specific risk factors can be modified.

“The single most important thing is a healthy lifestyle. It’s more about the variables. The genetic variable doesn’t have as big an impact as lifestyle does,” she said.

It’s not just healthy eating and exercise either, though Gingerich stressed their importance, too. A huge variable that affects heart-related problems relates to women and stress.

“Women were caregivers but often neglected their own health,” Gingerich pointed out. “They manage a lot of things, and these are modifiable things.”

She suggested taking a step back to figure out what can be changed. “Women can think about what they can do, but it’s also about just finding the time to do it,” she said.

“Block off 30 minutes a few days a week for exercise. Don’t eat on the run. Monitor your stress. Focusing on taking care of yourself.

“Think about how you can incorporate a healthy lifestyle will go further. Even small changes can have a huge impact,” she said.

More information about Porter Regional Hospital’s Center for Cardiovascular Medicine is at www.porterhealth.org.