The top cause of death of women in the United States is cardiovascular disease. St. John’s Heath Center hosted an educational program on this topic at the Santa Monica Main Library on Feb. 23 with three speakers from the hospital’s Pacific Heart Institute.
Consultative Cardiologist Richard Wright, M.D. explained, “More women die from heart attacks and strokes than men because they live longer.” Women generally have heart attacks about 10 years later than men because of hormonal differences.
A major cause of heart attack, and strokes is arteriosclerosis (hardening of the arteries) due to plaque build-up. This process begins in the teenage years, gets worse with age, and affects the body’s central arteries more than its peripheral arteries. Wright noted “the majority of Americans have this disease but only 50 percent of them don’t have a problem from it.” When plaque breaks off it can block a heart blood vessel, cause blood clots that can block a coronary artery, travel to the brain and cause a stroke, or cause a Transient Ischemic Attack (TIAs). Both strokes and TIAs cause a loss of blood flow to the brain. A TIA causes a loss for a shorter period of time.
There are 200 risk factors that can lead to cardiovascular disease but the key factors are high blood pressure, abnormal lipids, smoking, diabetes, inactivity, stress, or being overweight. Each factor increases a person’s risk by two times. Wright stressed that, “about 50 percent of the disease is behavioral” because an individual has control over certain factors such as eating healthy foods and exercising regularly. About 35 percent is environmental, 10 percent is related to access to medical care, and five percent is genetic. He also noted that when “Santa Monica banned smoking, the number of heart attacks in the city dramatically plummeted” over the last ten years.
Blood pressure is an indication of an individual’s artery health, and it increases with age. Systolic blood pressure (the upper number) should be less than 120 mmHg. Risk factors for stroke and heart disease increase two times for every 10 points a person’s blood pressure is above 120 mmHg.
Cardiac Electrophysiologist Stephal Doshi said, “Women’s hearts are wired differently than men, women have a higher resting heart rate than men across all ages,” and women’s hearts react more strongly to medications than men. Women also have more heart rhythm disorders than men. These disorders occur because of problems with the heart’s electrical system that can affect any of the four heart chambers. A heart can either beat too fast (tachycardia) or too slow (bradycardia).
The most common electrical heart abnormality is atrial fibrillation, which according to Doshi is an “electrical short circuit that causes the heart to misfire.” This abnormal rhythm raises the risk for a stroke because blood clots can form in the heart’s upper chambers that could enter into the bloodstream and travel to the brain. Risk of this abnormality begins at age 40 and 25 percent of the population will develop it over their lifetime.
The most common form of cardiac arrest is an electrical short circuit in the heart. Implanting pacemakers or defibrillators, medications or a combination of treatments can treat heart rhythm disorders.
Current imaging techniques of the heart were discussed by Consultative Non-Invasive Cardiologist, Nicole M. Weinberg. A physician gives these tests when more information is needed about a heart’s structure, functioning, coronary arteries, or blood flow within the heart.
Those who are concerned about preventing cardiovascular disease should not smoke, avoid second hand smoke, maintain a healthy weight and blood pressure, exercise five days a week for at least 30 minutes, and watch their intake of salt and unhealthy fats.