Dr. Nancy Lonsdorf
Heart disease is not just a man’s disease anymore—in fact, it never really was. It just appeared that way because women tend to manifest heart disease a decade later than men. Today, one in four American women die of heart disease, and more women die of heart disease every year than men. Heart disease shares the ignominious role as the number one killer of both American women and men. Yet despite these alarming statistics, the CDC reports that only 54 percent of women are aware that heart disease is their biggest health threat.
Every February, the American Heart Association endeavors to alert us to this fact with “Go Red for Women,” an initiative designed to raise awareness of women’s heart disease risk. This year the AHA scored a mega-success in public awareness with an hilarious three-minute viral video, “Just A Little Heart Attack” starring Elizabeth Banks (www.goredfor women.org). The laugh will do your heart good and you will effortlessly learn life-saving info about heart attacks in women. It just might save your life, or the life of a woman you love.
In short, it is important to realize that heart attacks do happen to women, that women are not diagnosed as quickly or treated as aggressively as men, and that that women are nearly twice as likely to die of or be disabled by a heart attack.
In addition, men are five times more likely to recognize their symptoms as coming from the heart, which points out the urgent need for women to learn the symptoms of heart attack as it occurs in women and to immediately seek treatment if you or someone near to you begins to experience similar symptoms.
Note that crushing chest pain or pressure is a common symptom in both men and women, and that there is a degree of overlap, with some women’s heart attacks presenting similar to the classic male syndrome, and vice versa.
Learn These Symptoms
If you experience these symptoms, call for help right away. Half of all victims die before help arrives, usually due to delay in getting help. The percentage shows the frequency with which women report the symptom (from Circulation, 2003, Vol. 108).
• Shortness of breath (58%)
• Weakness (55%)
• Unusual fatigue (43%)
• Cold sweat (39%)
• Dizziness (39%)
• Nausea (36%)
• Arms weak or heavy (35%)
Your Emotional Heart: Secret Key to Heart Health
Your heart has a mind of its own. And if you’re a woman, that connection is particularly intimate and sensitive. Known throughout the ages as intuitive, emotionally sensitive, and “heart-centered,” women have an especially close connection between their emotions and hearts that makes them extra-vulnerable to heart disease, and at ever-earlier ages. Living a life that opposes our true nature, feelings, and inner desires is a recipe for emotional distress, a proven risk factor for heart disease.
New York cardiologist Suzanne Steinbaum asserts this boldly in her new book, Dr. Suzanne Steinbaum’s Heart Book: Every Woman’s Guide to a Heart Healthy Life. Eminently practical, she details a program for every woman to connect to her ”heart’s desires” and implement a healthier, more fulfilling lifestyle even in the midst of a hectic life. She points out that the cost of not doing so can be actual physical heart disease. Alarmingly, the fastest growing population segment getting heart disease today is women ages 35 to 50, a cohort long felt to be immune from such maladies.
Anxiety, depression, and anger, along with all their shades of gray, are epidemic among women. They commonly result from a chronically stressed lifestyle and lack of emotional fulfillment, and are clearly linked to heart disease. Our physical heart in effect “eavesdrops” on our minds and emotions through hormones and neurotransmitters we create through our thoughts and feelings at every moment. To enjoy lasting health, we have to address our deepest needs and feelings as well as our diet and exercise levels.
Dr. Steinbaum urges women to take such simple measures as talking with girlfriends (creating stress-crushing oxytocin, the “cuddle” hormone), getting your nails done, and taking a yoga class to elevate your feminine-heart happiness meter.
We Can Learn to Improve our Emotional Well-being
Optimists have been found to have less heart disease, yet we are not all born sunny-side up! Optimistic or not, simply meditating twice a day can reduce your heart disease risk, even dramatically. For example, regular practice of the Transcendental Meditation program has been shown to reverse atherosclerosis (hardening of the arteries) in only six months, as well lower deaths from heart disease and stroke by nearly 50 percent in just a few years.
Positive emotions such as compassion, love, and gratitude are also powerful heart soothers, and, according to research by the HeartMath Institute, can create a coherent, regular beat-to-beat pattern of heart rate variability, whereas stressed emotions create an erratic beat-to-beat pattern. Their research has shown that people can be taught to consciously create positive emotions resulting in a healthier, more coherent heart, pulse, and breath integration.
Maharishi Ayurveda explains that we digest and metabolize our experiences and relationships in life just as we digest and metabolize food that we eat. Emotional imbalance results when our “experience metabolism” or agni is out of order. A variable emotional metabolism (vata) leads to high anxiety, an overheated one (pitta) leads to anger, and a sluggish one (kapha) gives depression. Specific herbs, spices, diet, aromas, and lifestyle can help to strengthen emotional resilience and ability to cope with emotional stress.
For example, regular meals and daily schedule, with an early bedtime, are key for lowering anxiety. Those who get angry easily should avoid caffeine and alcohol and be sure to eat three wholesome meals on time to keep themselves “chilled.” Depressed types should make the effort to be with other people, get up early to exercise, and avoid sweets and heavy foods.
Take the One-Minute Heart Check-Up Test
Test your heart’s state of resilience with this simple technique.
Feel your pulse at your wrist or side of the neck (gently).
Notice your pulse rate and regularity for a few seconds.
Then take a couple slow deep breaths.
Notice if your heart rate noticeably speeds up.
• If it speeds up with inhalation and slows with exhalation, your heart and nervous system are showing a normal pattern.
• If your heart rate stays the same, your heart is registering excess stress and you should take effective steps to reduce stress, get more active, and have your health checked by your doctor.
• If your rate is completely irregular, even only for a few minutes at a time, see your doctor immediately, as certain irregular patterns can lead to increased stroke and heart attack risk.
Click here to take the Healthy Hearted Quiz
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Nancy Lonsdorf, M.D., is board certified in integrative, holistic medicine by the ABIHM, has authored two books on women’s health and Ayurveda, and has a private practice in natural medicine in Fairfield, Iowa. Call 641-469-3174 or email firstname.lastname@example.org for further information.