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West Penn Allegheny Physicians, patients speak out on need for greater awareness of women’s heart risks

It was 14 years ago when Mary Ann Hirt first began to experience problems with her heart. “Out of the blue, my heart started to pound so fast and erratically that I thought I was going to die,” she recalls. “I managed to call 911 as I was collapsing and was rushed to the hospital.”
Mary Ann soon learned that she had atrial fibrillation - an abnormal heart rhythm that is potentially life threatening. “I was taken aback when I got the diagnosis,” she said. “To my knowledge, there wasn’t any history of heart disease in my family. I didn’t think this could happen to me.”
Like Mary Ann, millions of other women are not aware they are at risk for developing a heart attack, stroke or other cardiovascular diseases. But the facts tell a different story. Heart disease is the leading cause of death in American women, killing almost twice as many women than all forms of cancer combined.
Feb. 1, 2013 marks the 10th year of the American Heart Association’s Go Red for Women movement, fighting to raise awareness about a woman’s risk of heart disease. Though significant progress has been made, heart disease still kills more women than all kinds of cancer combined.
“Heart disease is the Number One killer of women in the United States,” said Indu Poornima, MD, a cardiologist at Allegheny General Hospital and medical director for the Women’s Heart Center at West Pest Penn Allegheny Health System’s Cardiovascular Institute. “The trouble is that women don’t recognize it as the Number One killer.”
Awareness is particularly important because of some unfortunate trends emerging among younger women.  They are taking up smoking at an increasing rate, and also becoming more obese, both of which pose serious risks to heart health.
“The positive news is that the earlier women address these concerns, such as smoking, the less chance they have of developing heart problems later in life,” Dr. Poornima said.
Breaking bad habits becomes particularly important as women reach menopause, and their risk of heart disease naturally increases. However it is critical to remember that women at all ages are at risk for heart disease.
Though women often experience the classic chest pain as the symptom of a heart attack, often they experience more general symptoms that they may chalk up to the flu, heartburn or menopausal changes. These symptoms include shortness of breath, pressure in the lower chest or abdomen, nausea, dizziness, upper back pain or extreme fatigue.
“Because they are so accustomed to caring for others, or perhaps because they believe a heart attack couldn’t happen to them, women often hesitate to call 911 when they are experiencing a symptom such as chest pain,” Dr. Poornima said. “Women should not feel embarrassed or hesitant about seeking help for their symptoms. They would best served if a provider ensures that their symptoms are not from the heart.”
As for Mary Ann, today she is enjoying a healthy and active life.
“I feel great and don’t have any limitations,” says Mary Ann, who is a nurse at Allegheny General Hospital and a volunteer at the Western Pennsylvania Humane Society. She adds that it’s important for women to seek medical care at the first sign of a medical problem and even earlier, during regular check-ups. “Many women make the mistake of downplaying their medical symptoms. They think the symptoms will pass. But hundreds of thousands of women die each year because they didn’t take action in time. Women need to pay closer attention to their health.”

West Penn Allegheny Health System will offer several free programs in February aimed to help you live a heart-healthier life. Among them:
• “Foods that Lower High Blood Pressure and LDL,” with Christine Mackey, MD, at AGH Suburban, 100 S. Jackson Ave., Bellevue, 9 a.m., Feb. 13. Info: 412.330.4469
• “Keeping Your Heart Young,” with Bruce MacLeod, MD, and a Whole Foods Market recipe demonstration, Feb. 19 from 1-2:30 p.m. at West Penn Hospital, 4800 Friendship Ave. Info: 412.330.4469
• “Exercise and Your Heart,” with Dr. MacLeod at LA Fitness, Bakery Square, at 6 p.m., Feb. 19. Info: 412.330.4469
For more information on upcoming events, visit: http://www.wpahs.org/events/2013-02

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