Trudy Schomaker was curling her hair one morning in September when suddenly the strength drained out of her raised arms “like water.”
“My body felt very weak,” says the 73-year-old Rochester Hills resident. “But I took a couple of aspirin and laid down, and about 30 minutes later I felt better.”
Nonetheless, she decided to see a doctor. A few days later, she found herself in Beaumont Hospital, receiving in-patient treatment through the Ministrelli Women’s Heart Center for a congenital abnormality in her heart that requires her to avoid even minor blockages to her arteries.
Schomaker was fortunate. Too many women (and their doctors) ignore or dismiss their symptoms of cardiovascular disease. The result: Cardiovascular disease is the No. 1 killer of American women, taking the life of about 432,000 women annually. That’s 10 times as many deaths from breast cancer and twice as many deaths from all cancers combined.
In fact, more American women die of cardiac disease each year than men. But medical studies still prioritize male subjects, and cardiovascular disease continues to be viewed, even by many physicians, as primarily a male affliction.
“There’s growing awareness, but it’s probably not enough,” says Dr. Mayra Guerrero, interventional cardiologist for Henry Ford Health System. “Most of the trials include males more than females. Female patients don’t tend to recognize when they are having a problem. They’re not aware their risk is equal, and their symptoms are different.”
Rectifying that inequity and saving women’s lives was the motivation behind the Ministrelli Women’s Heart Center, which was the first of its kind in Michigan and opened in 2002. The 5,200-square-foot center focuses on preventive testing and treatment and offers a holistic approach, providing patients with the services of a dietitian, an on-site massage therapist, and referrals for yoga, medication, and other stress-reduction options.
“Women say they’ve been told it was nothing, or they had anxiety or depression, and then they come to us and we find disease,” says Dr. Pamela Marcovitz, the center’s director. “We made a conscious effort to have a special place for women. Our mindset is one of listening to women and putting their health issues into the context of their greater lives.”
Key to the center’s effort is teaching women how to prevent — not just treat — heart disease. That means screening women for artery blockages before they’ve had a heart attack or stroke. Hospitals are increasingly screening for disease in the arteries in the neck and legs, Marcovitz, says, and finding subclinical disease.
“People have 30-percent blockages,” she says. “Well, that’s the disease. Now is the time to take care of that.”
Such screenings are especially important for women because their symptoms can be so subtle and diffuse. Women having a cardiac episode typically don’t experience severe chest pain, as men do. Instead, they report indigestion, shortness of breath, nausea, and lightheadedness, among other symptoms. Many health-insurance plans don’t cover the costs of many useful preventive screenings.
“When you look at what insurance pays for in terms of women’s health, it’s for breast-cancer treatment,” Marcovitz says. “Ten times as many women die in this country of heart attacks and strokes as breast cancer every year, and twice as many as all cancers combined. And we’re not providing heart disease screening? Come on. And it’s a relatively cheap test.”
Mary Biondo, of Beverly Hills, says she appeared to be the picture of health in 2008. The 67-year-old had a reasonably healthful diet and was trim and youthful looking. But years of eating fatty, fried, and high-sugar foods during her younger years had taken their toll. A calcium-scoring test indicated a blocked artery, prompting her internist to refer her to Beaumont for angioplasty. During the procedure, the artery was discovered to be so blocked that the medical team inserted a stent right away. The surgeon told Biondo a heart attack would have been fatal; other than high cholesterol, Biondo had had no previous indicators of her cardiac disease.
“I’m a real picky eater and I’m careful, but I think what happened to me was I didn’t have good care early in my life,” Biondo says.
“What I did have was not very wholesome food. I don’t look like I have any problems, and I think that misses a lot of it.”
Biondo attended physical therapy and today takes a daily aspirin and watches her diet very closely; she says she’s doing “very well.”
Getting women like Biondo to recognize their risks before it’s too late is the impetus behind February’s Go Red for Women, the American Heart Association’s monthlong push to raise money for research on women’s cardiovascular health and to raise awareness. The month, which uses a red dress as its symbol, is modeled on the breast-cancer movement’s successful employment of the pink ribbon.
“Ten times as many women die in this country of heart attacks and strokes as breast cancer every year, and twice as many as all cancers combined.” — Dr. Pamela Marcovitz
Cardiac disease is 80-percent preventable, Marcovitz says, and women looking to protect themselves should follow a few steps: Exercise almost every day, eat healthfully, don’t smoke, control your blood pressure, and know your numbers for cholesterol and sugar. “If you do those things, you will avoid — or at least delay — for several years your risk of heart attack and stroke,” she says. “These are simple measures.”
A strong focus on women’s cardiovascular health is especially needed in metro Detroit, Marcovitz says, because Michigan routinely lands on short lists of the unhealthiest states in the country. Michigan’s recent smoking ban might change that; bans in other states have been associated with sharp drops in the rates of cardiac incidents, and Marcovitz says she’d like to collaborate with other hospitals in the coming year to gauge the impact of the state’s smoking ban on Michigan residents’ heart health.
And she’s encouraged, she says, by the example of Minnesota, one of the nation’s healthiest states. “I love knowing they’re one of the healthiest states for cardiovascular health, because they’re a cold state,” she says. “I think it’s possible here.”
Educating women about the value of taking proper care of their tickers will do more than help individual women, Henry Ford’s Guerrero says. “It’s more important that a woman knows the risk factors, because you’re not just educating one person,” she says. “It’s likely that woman is going to get married, and her family is going to have the lifestyle she creates. If you educate a female patient, not only are you helping her, you’re helping her entire family.”