Women Reminded to Care for Hearts

By Aisling Maki

Everyone from Memphis television news anchors to cardiologists wore red to work Friday to mark the American Heart Association’s Go Red for Women campaign.

Graceland illuminated Elvis’ mansion Friday night and adorned its famous wall with a red banner, which will remain hanging through the end of February to mark American Heart Month, encouraging women to know their risk factors for heart disease.

Volunteers, philanthropists and others gathered at The Peabody hotel Saturday night for the annual Memphis Heart Ball, a gala organized by the Memphis chapter of the American Heart Association.

And the Memphis Zoo has decorated the animal statues on the zoo’s entry plaza with red hearts, which will remain in place through the end of the month as a reminder to women in particular to take the appropriate steps to better care for their hearts.

“While everyone needs to be concerned about their heart, the push is for women because of the fact that so many women have these symptoms and risk factors that they’re not even aware of,” said American Heart Association spokesman Drew Smith. “It’s to remind them to have yearly checkups and talk to their doctor if they have any type of pain.”

Starting in 1984, more women than men started dying annually from heart disease, and the gap continues to widen.

Many women are unaware of heart attack symptoms, which may or may not include the classic chest pain, and could instead be marked by shortness of breath, nausea and vomiting, and pain in the back, arms or jaw.

“Most women – and even many doctors still – haven’t accepted or realized the fact that heart disease is the No. 1 killer of women,” said Dr. Arie Szatkowski, a cardiologist with the Stern Cardiovascular Center in Memphis. “If you were to ask five women what they thought was the greatest threat to their health, only one of them would say that it’s heart disease.”

Szatkowski said that while one in 30 women will die annually from breast cancer, one in three will die of heart-related causes or stroke.

“That’s almost 450,000 women a year, and it’s all ages, not just older women,” he said. “About 30,000 women will die of all cancers combined. Death from stroke and heart attack outnumbers all the cancer deaths nine times over. It’s a significant difference.”

The good news is that when women focus on their modifiable risk factors and implement lifestyle changes, it can make a world of difference to their heart health.

“If women were to make major lifestyle changes such as quitting smoking, exercising regularly, eating the appropriate diet, treating their high blood pressure and controlling their diabetes and cholesterol, studies estimate that 80 percent of events could be reduced,” Szatkowski said. “That’s a dramatic number. But we can’t do any of these things unless women realize that in their lifetime, the medical illness that will most likely take their lives is a vascular event, whether that be a stroke or heart attack or congestive heart failure.”

Szatkowski said the Mid-South region has the highest incidence of heart-related events in the nation, largely a result of lifestyle.

“We consider it the pandemic region here,” he said. “A lot of it stems from the culture, the diet, the lack of areas to walk. Everyone drives everywhere, eats lots of fast food, and grows up eating mom’s and grandma’s food and just passing those diets down through the generations.”

Susan Haynes of Memphis knows firsthand how lifestyle factors affect health.

A heart disease survivor who regularly speaks at churches, health fairs and community events, Haynes has made it her mission to spread the gospel of healthy habits.

“Here in the South, there’s so much obesity, diabetes and a lot of smoking and unhealthy habits,” said Haynes, whose story is featured in the current issue of Woman’s Day magazine. “I spent a lifetime having terrible health habits; I smoked for about 30 years and I was terribly obese. Right before my diagnosis, I weighed almost 300 pounds. I ended up in the hospital about two-and-a-half years ago with congestive heart failure and Type 2 diabetes. Since then, I’ve quit smoking and started eating healthy. I’ve lost about 150 pounds and I feel fabulous. Thank God for my health.”

Haynes now works with WomenHeart (womenheart.org), a national support coalition founded by heart attack survivors. The local chapter, which has about 70 members, meets on the fourth Sunday of each month.

“Know your risk factors,” Haynes said. “So many women don’t talk to their doctors; they don’t ask the important questions. I know I was guilty of it. I lived in this denial, and we can’t afford to do that.”