Heart disease is often thought of as a problem for men, but according to the Centers for Disease Control, more women than men die of heart disease each year. One reason for this is that heart disease symptoms in women can be different from symptoms in men and they wait longer to seek treatment. One of our independent living residents learned this the hard way.
On a Monday morning Bernice woke up at 4:30 am drenched in sweat. After having her temperature checked, and no sign of a fever, she simply thought she was coming down with the flu. Eventually it went away, but later in the day, her back began to ache and she was experiencing shortness of breath. When her friend, a retired nurse, stopped by her apartment to see her, she insisted on calling the paramedics. She knew something was not right.
At Wisconsin Heart Hospital it was determined that Bernice was suffering a heart attack. She underwent emergency heart surgery where it was discovered that there was 100% blockage. Doctors removed a blood clot in the artery on top of her heart and put in a stent. Bernice was stunned-- she had no history of heart problems and was in good health. But the biggest surprise to her was not recognizing the warning signs that she was having a heart attack. She didn’t have the typical chest pains that are often associated with a heart attack.
After her heart attack, Bernice went to cardiac rehab at Aurora West Allis Medical Center three times a week for the next six weeks. When her therapy was completed, she was told to continue walking for 30 minutes a day. But she took it one step further. “I walk for 40minutes a day on the treadmill and ride the exercise bike for another 15 minutes,” she explains. “It’s rare if I miss a day.” At Hart Park Square she can use a treadmill and exercise bike at her leisure. “Bernice is truly dedicated to her health. Not only does she walk religiously every day, but she regularly attends our daily exercise classes,” comments Nina Birschbach, Lifestyle Coordinator at Hart Park Square. There are plenty of benefits to living in a senior community when it comes to exercise and recovering from a heart attack.
Bernice was told by her cardiologist that she has permanent damage to her heart, and that if she had gone to the hospital the first thing in the morning, the damage would not have occurred. But, by committing herself to daily exercise, it is no surprise that Bernice has been able to bounce back quickly. Today, she is fully recovered, just turned 91 years old, and her heart is regulated with medication.
Traditional risk factors for coronary artery disease — such as high cholesterol, high blood pressure and obesity — affect women and men, alike. There are other factors that may play a bigger role in the development of heart disease in women of which most women are unaware.
Metabolic syndrome — a combination of fat around your abdomen, high blood pressure, high blood sugar and high triglycerides — has a greater impact on women than on men.
Mental stress and depression affect women's hearts more than men's.
Smoking, not good for anyone, is a greater risk factor for heart disease in women than in men.
Low levels of estrogen after menopause pose a significant risk factor for developing cardiovascular disease in the smaller blood vessels.
While Bernice’s story is a cautionary tale about the need for women to be more aware of their risks for heart disease, it also illustrates that people can recover from a heart attack and get back to enjoying life.