Navigating healthcare

By Diane L. Marolla, LICSW

It’s a Matter of Heart

“Nobody can go back and start a new beginning, but anyone can start today and make a new ending.” Maria Robinson

When I began to formulate my thoughts to write this article, it immediately popped into my head that of all our body parts, it is the heart that is most sung about. I randomly thought of five songs about the heart: How Can You Mend a Broken Heart (by the Bee Gees), Heartbreaker (Pat Benatar), Heartlight (Neil Diamond), My Heart Will Go On (Celine Dion), and Heart Attack (Olivia Newton John). I thought, this small muscle (it is not an organ) in our bodies, is always sung about, but what function does it serve, why is it important, and what do we need to do to take care of it? I also thought, why, as a woman, am I never worried about heart disease? I stress more about getting breast cancer (my mother passed away from breast cancer), but I never think about the heart disease that was on my father’s side of the family (my father had open heart surgery and later died of complications from a stroke; all of my father’s brothers and sisters had heart attacks before the age of 40). Like most women, I incorrectly think of heart disease as a man’s disease.

In doing my research about the heart, I learned that the heart is the size of a fist. The heart basically is what pumps blood all around our body. In fact, Tim Newman in his January 2018 detailed article on the heart in Medical News Today says, “our heart beats 100,000 times a day, pushing 5,000 gallons of blood through our body every 24 hours. It delivers oxygen- and nutrient-rich blood to our tissues and carries away waste.” I also learned through my research that heart disease is the leading cause of death for both men AND women. The American Heart Association reports that 1 of every 3 deaths in this country is due to cardiovascular disease. The American Heart Association also reports that every 40 seconds someone in this country is having a heart attack.

Wanting to know more about heart disease in women and what the warning signs are, I sat down with Dr. Sarah Fessler, Chief Medical Officer at East Bay Community Action Program. Dr. Fessler is a Family Practitioner who has been practicing in RI for 25 years. According to Dr. Fessler “the most common heart disease is coronary artery disease which is blockage of the arteries that feed the heart muscle.” Dr. Fessler went on to explain to me that “you can die from a heart attack or a heart attack can damage pieces of the muscle and leave the heart weakened.”

I also wanted to understand better what the symptoms of a heart attack are for women. In our conversation, Dr. Fessler reviewed with me the following symptoms:

Pressure in your chest
Pain or discomfort in one or both arms
Shortness of breath
Cold sweats or nausea
Jaw pain

Dr. Fessler also discussed with me “heart disease starts later in life for women, about 10 years later than men.”

In both my conversation with Dr. Fessler in addition to the research I did for this article the risk factors for heart disease are the same risk factors that are for other diseases as well. Smoking is a risk factor for heart disease. Having an unhealthy diet and having a sedentary lifestyle without exercise also puts you at risk. Drinking too much alcohol puts you at risk. Stress and depression are also risk factors. So, the message regarding risk is don’t smoke, eat healthy, exercise, don’t drink too much, and take care of your mental health. Other risk factors for women are having diabetes and menopause.

Having your cholesterol and blood pressure checked annually during your wellness visits with your Primary Care Provider also is an important preventative measure. If you do take medications for high blood pressure and cholesterol be sure to take them as prescribed by your Doctor. Other tests, such as a stress test or an EKG (electrocardiogram), typically are not ordered by a physician unless there are symptoms that warrant the tests. Taking a daily aspirin as a preventative measure is not something you should do on your own. Discuss it with your health care provider first to better understand if it would benefit you.

If you feel you are having symptoms of a heart attack, the best thing to do is to get to an emergency room right away. Be sure that you are not driving yourself, as you could lose consciousness if you truly are having a heart attack.