Here's a bit of trivia: what disease is the number one killer of women? Breast cancer? Cervical Cancer? Stroke? The answer might surprise you - heart disease is the nation's number one killer of men AND women. As part of a special series on heart disease which airs this week on 90.3 and WVIZ PBS, ideastream® health reporter Gretchen Cuda tells us what every woman needs to now about her heart.
A woman's heart is weighs about eight ounces – a man's about 10. Both do roughly the same job – pumping an estimated 2 thousand gallons of blood every day through a system of arteries, veins and capillaries 60-thousand miles long—that's enough to go around the world TWICE. But even though men's and women's hearts are physically similar – the symptoms of heart attack can be very different among the two genders.
That's something 45-year-old Carmella McMullen learned the hard way.
MCMULLEN: So I was officiating a basketball game, and it was almost near the end of the season, but this particular game I felt myself very fatigued. My chest very tight --and I ended up thinking, OK you're really out of shape tonight.
McMullen is lean and athletic looking. She's been officiating college basketball for 16 years – running up and down the court on a regular basis. She's in great shape. Until that night on the basketball court, she considered herself the picture of perfect health. So when the discomfort started in her chest she naturally assumed it was something else.....
MCMULLEN: Never did I think it was a heart attack.
Leslie Cho is the director of the women's cardiovascular Center at the Cleveland Clinic and McMullen's doctor. She says although women DO have typical heart attack symptoms like a crushing chest pain that radiates down the left arm, many women have more subtle symptoms – and women and diabetics can sometimes have NO symptoms at all
CHO: Women often have more atypical symptoms such as shortness of breath, fatigue, or just not feeling right. A lot of women complain of nausea and just not feeling themselves and by the time they come to the hospital they're having a heart attack
McMullen took some Tums for indigestion , and waited three days before she finally went to the emergency room – but even the doctors thought the problem was her stomach not her HEART.
MCMULLIN: they told me it was gastritis they gave me Tagamet for a month – didn't work – and that's when I went to see my primary physician and she told me to see cardiologist.
Cho says it's unfortunate, but doctors tend to share the same gender bias as everyone else when it comes to heart disease.
CHO: There was a fascinating study where they made actors read scripts – the same exact script the only difference was that one was a female and one was a male, and they asked doctors which one would you send for further diagnostic testing, and they sent men for further diagnostic cardiac testing and the women they did not.
Eventually McMullen discovered she had had several arteries that were almost completely blocked – and that she'd likely had not ONE, but TWO heart attacks. She was put on medication, had her arteries opened with several metal tubes called stents, and went on a strict diet and exercise regimen. She says it gave her a whole new perspective.
MCMULLIN: I always tell my friends life comes at you fast. Because
you're doing one thing one day and the next your life has changed, but you just kind of have to embrace it, take one day at a time
CUDA: Does it still scare you a little bit?
As a precaution McMullen wears a tiny canister filled with nitroglycerine tablets around her neck – a medicine that relaxes and widens the arteries. She also wears a heart rate monitor when she works out and medical bracelet that identifies her as a heart patient at all times. In her wallet she carries a list of the medications she's on. She says people are always shocked to learn she has heart disease –and Dr. Cho says that just goes to show that looks can be deceiving.
CHO: That's sort of the bias – we all think that you have to be sort of portly and smoking, and old to have heart diseases, but that's not the case. Heart disease is a non-discriminator.
Cho says women should be especially proactive about their heart health, because the biggest gender disparity is thinking it can't happen to you.
Gretchen Cuda, 90.3
Doctors say that both women and men should get a cholesterol check starting at the age of 20, keep tabs on their blood pressure, be aware of their family history of heart disease and if they are having unusual chest pain, nausea, heartburn or other symptoms, see their physician.