Don't Die of a Broken Heart

Heart disease is the leading cause of death among Americans, a serious threat to men and women alike. According to the American Heart Association, one in three women has some form of cardiovascular disease. Since 1984, the number of deaths due to this devastating, yet largely preventable disease has been higher among women than men. It's not a pleasant topic, yet ignoring it could prove fatal.
But what exactly is heart disease? Martha Bridges, registered nurse and clinical coordinator for the Cardiac Rehabilitation Program of the Okatie Outpatient Center, explained it in layman's terms.
"Heart disease means that the blood flow to your heart muscle has been decreased because of a narrowing of your coronary arteries," said Bridges. "This can be a very slow process over your lifetime, and it could lead to heart attack or the need for bypass surgery."
In her office, she has a handy visual aid that shows models of a normal human artery, alongside arteries affected by heart disease. One is partially filled with yellowish build-up, another completely blocked by build-up and a blood clot. They make a rather grisly display, one that serves to remind us how fragile our intricate bodies really are and how important it is to take care of them.
The symptoms of heart disease typically include chest discomfort with exertion, feeling short of breath, and fatigue. Anyone who feels these symptoms should see a doctor, who, through a series of tests, will determine if the person has any blockage. Sometimes, interventions are needed, says Bridges, including bypass surgeries in the most severe cases. Then, the patient would enter the cardiac rehab program, which revolves around controlled exercise while being hooked up to a heart monitor. The program also entails a strong dose of diet counseling and education.
"We focus on helping people control their risk factors," said Bridges. "This includes things like high blood pressure, diabetes, obesity, lack of exercise and stress. Of course, there are also uncontrollable factors such as age and family history."
According to Bridges, there is an equal prevalence of heart disease among men and women after the age of 55 (more men seem to get the disease when they are younger), yet the death rate is higher among women, possibly because they tend to disregard their symptoms.
"Women's symptoms may not be as pronounced," said Bridges. "It may be just, 'I don't feel as well as I used to.' Women are also more likely to ignore their symptoms and be caregivers instead of taking care of themselves."
Yet with all the women she sees come through the cardiac rehab program, Bridges feels compelled to try and change this saddening reality.

"My message to women is that their health needs to be at its best in order to continue to be good caretakers," she said. "They need to focus on their own health by eating correctly, exercising regularly and having their health exams. We need to focus on the things we can control."

One of Bridges' patients in the cardiac rehab program is Jo Timperman, who was recently diagnosed with heart disease.
"I'm a very active person, so when I had chest pains, I didn't realize it was my heart," said Timperman, who underwent a procedure last May wherein a small metal device called a stent was put in a pressure-clogged artery to assist blood flow. "I felt confident that they would open the blockage and I would be fine."
Though Timperman acknowledges that background history may have caused her condition, she has learned that it's not at all uncommon for women to face this problem because of their smaller veins. She also confirmed what Bridges said about the subtler symptoms in women.
"They say for men it's like an elephant stepped on their chests," said Timperman. "For women, it doesn't have to be tightness in your chest. It could be a backache, a pain in your jaw or a numb arm, things you don't think of as being related to your heart."
Timperman's recovery has been excellent and she says the cardiac rehab program has helped a lot. She recommends that everyone eat right and exercise regularly to keep their heart in good condition.
Ultimately, having good habits benefit not only the individual, but those around them as well. Bridges emphasizes the role women play in sowing the seeds of good health among future generations.
"Women are examples for the rest of their family," she said. "If they take care of themselves, that has an influence on their children and grandchildren. When my grandkids come to visit me, they know I go on a walk every morning and they look forward to going with me. So we can have a great impact on the future just by setting a good example."

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