Many women unaware of their No. 1 health threat

Woman survives 3 heart attacks by 40, didn't know all the signs her heart was in trouble

Published On: Jun 27 2013 10:58:45 PM EDT   Updated On: Jun 28 2013 07:47:35 AM EDT
Women heart health

KC Maurer suffered three heart attacks before age 40.

"Heart attack number one was absolutely a wake-up call for me," Maurer said.

But Maurer has gone from heart patient to marathon finisher.  She has also lost 110 pounds.

"I did 489 miles worth of training," said Maurer about preparing for the New York City Marathon.

Heart disease is the number one killer of women, yet only one in five women believe heart disease is their greatest health risk according to the American Heart Association.

Doctor Pam Marcovitz, the medical director of Ministrelli Women's Heart Center at Beaumont Hospital in Royal Oak said that lifestyle changes can prevent up to 80 percent of heart disease.

Margaret England, a Detroit resident, agrees.

"I use to have high blood pressure and high cholesterol, but now I exercise everyday and my blood pressure is normal and my cholesterol is getting normal because I changed the whole way that I eat." said England. "I didn't feel good. And now I feel great! I can exercise for an hour without my heart rate going off the grid and I want to live to be 100."

"Many women will have a heart attack as their initial sign of heart disease." said Dr. Marcovitz.

Marcovitz said women also need to know about the warning signs of of heart disease.  Chest pain remains the most common symptom, but women may experience it differently than men.

"Women very rarely will say they have an elephant sitting on their chest, it may be milder chest pain going over to the left arm, up to the neck or jaw." said Marcovitz. " It may be accompanied by feelings of indigestion, burning sensation under the sternum, feeling nauseated, sweating a little or feeling suddenly weak."

Women need to know their risk factors as well. Traditional risk factors include high blood pressure, high cholesterol, and diabetes. A family history of heart disease is something to consider as well.

"I worry about my heart health because we actually have that in my family, both my mom and dad had heart issues," said Grace Robinson of Midtown.

Complications in pregnancy can also raise a women's risk later in life.

"Women going through pregnancy who have diabetes during pregnancy, who have preeclampsia, who have high blood pressures during pregnancy have a dramatically increased risk of future stroke and heart attack events," said cardiologist, Holly Andersen, MD.

Taking a baby aspirin daily can be an effective way to prevent heart disease in some cases. "The effects of low dose aspirin are a little different in women then men" says Marcovitz. "There is a benefit in women over 45 who are healthy perhaps in taking a small aspirin every day."

Part of maintaining a healthy lifestyle is having a healthy weight, but research shows that the more important number is a person's waistline.

"We know if your waistline is 35 inches or higher you're probably at risk for heart attack and probably that's because people who have larger waistlines are more disposed to diabetes or at least pre-diabetes which leads to diabetes later in life." said Marcovitz. "We know that diabetes is a very strong risk factor for heart attack in women."

Marcovitz said it's important to remember is that changes won't always happen overnight. She gave the example of celebrity Star Jones who weighed 300 pounds at her heaviest.  Jones had gastric bypass surgery to lose weight and adopted a healthier lifestyle but she developed heart disease and underwent open heart surgery.

Marcovitz said to do something healthy every day and over time the risk for heart attack will definitely change.  Cardiologists recommend 30 minutes of moderate exercise five times a week and eating healthy foods such as fruits, vegetables, fish, nuts and legumes to keep your heart health on track.

For more on the Ministrelli Women's Heart Center, click here.