Hearts Aflutter?

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Annabelle Volgman, MD, provides a Top 10 list emphasizing what we need to know about our tickers.

Not for Cupid, but for American Heart Month, for the number one killer of our gender…heart disease. Annabelle Volgman, MD, is medical director of Rush University Medical Center’s Heart Center for Women, and we could think of no one better than Dr. Volgman to help us in our crusade for healthy hearts…

1. Heart disease – anything involving the heart and/or blood vessels – is the number one cause of death in women. It’s deadlier than all forms of cancer combined. And today, more women die of cardiovascular disease than men.

2. We’re all born with holes in our hearts. Not from lost love, but from a small flap-like opening that allows blood to flow between the chambers while we’re in utero. It normally closes during infancy, but for 25 percent of us, that doesn’t happen. While normally not a problem, Dr. Volgman says if a clot passes through it, trouble lies ahead.

3. Age, ethnicity and other factors don’t make us more or less likely to have cardiovascular disease. Even those of us who are smug in our health habits and fitness levels must still be vigilant.

4. “Obesity has become rampant in younger women,” Dr. Volgman reports. And with busy schedules, exercise often becomes an overlooked luxury. That’s why the medical community has looked so favorably on a Mediterranean-style diet, one high in fruits, vegetables, whole grains and seafood.

5. The hormones in birth control pills increase a woman’s chance of developing blood clots in the leg (with symptoms like redness, swelling and pain). That likelihood increases even more with smoking and obesity. Clots that clog blood vessels in the brain starve the brain of oxygen, the essence of a stroke. Conversely, it was thought that hormones later in life, like those given to alleviate menopause symptoms, lowered the chance of heart disease. That’s now debatable.

6. Having diabetes more than doubles your risk for a heart attack or stroke. It’s such an important factor, in fact, that Dr. Volgman stresses, “If you’re a woman over the age of 40 and a diabetic, you should be living as if you already have heart disease. That means heart healthy choices and close monitoring by your medical team.”

7. “Lipoprotein(a), also known as ‘LP little a,’ is a blood marker that’s similar to cholesterol but not detected by the usual cholesterol test. It’s a huge risk factor for blood clots and heart disease,” cautions Dr. Volgman. “The little ‘a’ is really big!” She’s very excited about her involvement with the new Lipoprotein(a) Foundation and the ongoing clinical trials that will help the medical community better understand it and its implications.

8. Cardiac surgery was once extremely invasive, but not anymore. Enter non-surgical intervention therapy, done to repair heart valves without opening the chest. Called a Transcatheter Aortic Valve Replacement, the procedure has been used in France for more than 10 years. But now the valves are being made smaller so they’re easier for use in women. Simply put, the old valve is cracked and pushed aside with a balloon, and then replaced with a new valve composed of biological material.

9. We’ve come a long way. Consider the article you’re reading. Only half as many women as men received angioplasty and stents a decade ago, even though more women than men were dying of cardiovascular disease. Women are still underdiagnosed and undertreated, but heart health awareness continues to grow. Dr. Volgman and the American Heart Association hope you’ll help spread the word.

10. Knowledge is key. “Know your family history and then don’t hide under a rock. Make your lifestyle decisions with it in mind.”

Above: Dr. Annabelle Volgman wears red every day to remind people that there are women dying from heart disease than men. | Ashley Fischer Photograph

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About Judy Pearson

Judy Pearson is a graduate of Michigan State University who's written nearly two decades worth of newspaper and magazine articles and has published three books. Her biography of Virginia Hall, Wolves at the Door: the True Story of America’s Greatest Female Spy, has been optioned for a movie. Her most recent book, It’s Just Hair: 20 Essential Life Lessons, is a 2012 International Book Award finalist. Ms. Pearson is also the founder of Courage Concepts, an organization that cultivates courage in women and provides workshops/keynotes for corporations and other organizations.