By Kevin Gray, M.D.
It’s become common knowledge that heart disease is the number one killer of both men and women in the United States, taking the lives of more than 600,000 Americans annually. Medical and research communities continue to expand their efforts toward better prevention and treatment of cardiovascular diseases.
A recent study was conducted at the University of Pittsburgh School of Medicine, focusing on the impact of trauma on a woman’s general heart health. The results were significant, indicating that women who have experienced at least three traumatic experiences in their lifetime have poorer endothelial function than their counterparts with fewer traumas.
“Endothelial function refers to the cells lining the interior of the heart and blood vessels, and how well they help constrict and relax the blood vessels,” says Dr. Kevin Gray, Internal Medicine. “Endothelial dysfunction is known to be a risk factor for heart disease, often leading to hardening of the arteries and high blood pressure.”
Past studies have focused on the association between mental stress and endothelial function, but few studies have looked at the effect of actual trauma on this risk. This particular study analyzed 272 women who were either peri- or postmenopausal and non-smokers. Those experiencing traumas such as sexual or physical assault, motor vehicle accidents, natural disasters or death of a child showed weaker endothelial function than those who had not experienced that level of trauma.
This is not the first revelation to be uncovered by research into potential cardiovascular risk factors. In recent years, researchers have found links between women’s heart disease and yo-yo dieting, preeclampsia during pregnancy, and endometriosis.
“Given the increasing percentage of postmenopausal women affected by heart disease, this study is important in understanding a patient’s overall risk,” says Dr. Gray. “Physicians should be reminded of the need to look at the totality of a woman’s history and situation – physical, mental, emotional and environmental.”
Additionally, experts have been focused on uncovering disparate symptoms between men and women, for the purpose of earlier identification and intervention during heart attack. The points below represent
some of the key distinctions in how women encounter heart disease:
. Age of onset. Men are at risk for heart attack earlier in life than women. Estrogen offers women some protection from heart disease until after menopause, putting the average age of heart attack in women at 70, vs. the average age of 66 in men.
. The role of fatigue. Women are disproportionately impacted by fatigue as a pre-cursor to a heart attack. The feeling of excessive tiredness, or a “heavy chest,” can appear up to a month before a cardiac event, and often occurs with little or no physical exertion.
. Sweating and shortness of breath. These should be particularly alerting symptoms when they occur without exertion, or when either is accompanied by chest pain or fatigue. Other indicators are shortness of breath that worsens when lying down, and a cold, clammy feeling occurring without obvious cause.
. Pain in the neck, back or jaw. Pay special attention to these pains when they are not accompanied by specific muscle or joint aches, or when the discomfort worsens with exertion and gets better when you stop. Also, the pain can start in either arm, while it’s typically felt in the left arm in men.
February is American Heart Month, and February 2nd is designated as national Go Red for Women day. Put on your red sweater, hat or socks, and show your support for heart health and longevity for the women in your life.
If you need more information on your personal risk factors for heart disease, schedule an appointment with your primary care doctor, or call 1-855-TENNOVA to be connected with one of Tennova Healthcare – Regional Jackson’s qualified cardiologists.
About the Author
Kevin Gray, M.D., is an internal medicine physician who sees patients at Tennova Primary Care located at 31 Physicians Drive in Jackson, TN. Dr. Gray is also a member of the medical staff at Tennova Healthcare – Regional Jackson.
About Tennova Healthcare
One of the state’s largest health networks, Tennova Healthcare includes 16 hospitals and more than 115 physician clinics. The combined network has approximately 2,600 licensed beds, 2,800 physicians on the combined active medical staffs, and 9,000 employees, with more than 70,000 admissions and 465,000 emergency department visits each year. Tennova Healthcare – Regional Jackson is owned, in part, by physicians. Learn more at www.Tennova.com.