I’m sure that many people were dismayed to hear that popular comedienne and talk show host Rosie O’Donnell just suffered a heart attack that required an emergency medical intervention. But what happened to Ms. O’Donnell is just a reminder that heart disease is something that every woman needs to be savvy about the signs and symptoms of a heart attack and that the technology we have developed in cardiology saves lives.
I commend Ms. O’Donnell’s frankness in her own blog where she shared her recent experience with the public in order to raise awareness in other women. As with many young women, she had some level of denial that she could be having a heart attack. It seems that she developed one of the signs and symptoms of a heart attack, an ache in her chest and arms, after rescuing a large woman struggling to exit a car.
Aspirin May Have Relieved Clotting
The celebrity “Googled” women’s signs and symptoms of a heart attack, and saw that hers matched up with many that indicated a heart attack, and said "Naaa." I imagine she rationalized that she’d just "pulled a muscle." Ms. O’Donnell did not call 911. At least she did take some aspirin, which may have helped to relieve any clotting that may have been happening.
Then her signs and symptoms of a heart attack worsened. She was hot and clammy. She vomited. Wisely, Ms. O’Donnell got herself to a cardiologist. (Still, a 911 call would have been better.)
Stents Save Lives
Kudos to the doctors who acted quickly and decisively to get Ms. O’Donnell the emergency stent procedure that restored circulation and prevented further damage to her heart muscle.
From what I understand, her LAD, or left anterior descending coronary artery (a major tributary that comes around the front of the left ventricle to supply blood to the left side of the heart) was critically blocked, and while an EKG can show us a lot, it is a noninvasive test. Only an angiogram is the gold standard that can estimate how much blockage there is.
Nonetheless, it was lucky that when her blockage was found there was enough “daylight” to thread a catheter into the area of obstruction and insert the stent that would hold that blood vessel open to restore blood flow. Stents inserted during an evolving heart attack save lives.
Type-A Personality Traits
I don’t know Ms. O’Donnell personally, but what I do know is that, at 50 years of age, she is peri-menopausal. I assume that her life as a celebrity and a parent involve some psychological stress. With all that she has achieved in her life, she most likely has some Type-A personality traits; you know, a successful overachiever for whom perfection, deadlines and time urgency become a way of life.
Add on a few other risks factors, such as being overweight, to Ms. O’Donnell’s loss of protection from her diminishing natural estrogen reserves, and voilá -- the scenario that places any woman at risk for quietly developing heart disease over time emerges.
Should Ms. O’Donnell have other traditional risk factors such as high blood pressure, diabetes, a family history of heart disease, elevated inflammatory markers in the blood such as Lp(a), homocysteine, Interleukin-6 or C-reactive protein, her chances of developing heart disease rise exponentially.
Pay Attention to the Signs and Symptoms of a Heart Attack
The take home message here is that women do need to heed the fact that they are at risk for heart disease, especially peri-menopausal and post-menopausal women with the four other cardiac risk factors that are more dangerous for women. They also need to know what warning signs to look for.
And if you think that women are protected until the seventh decade of life and beyond, let Ms. O’Donnell’s wake-up call be one that you take to heart as well. Yes, younger women can and do have heart attacks … all the time! In fact, 55 percent to60 percent of people experiencing the signs and symptoms of a heart attack are women.
A Word From the American Heart Association
Here’s the scoop from the American Heart Association’s website: "Every minute in the United States, someone’s wife, mother, daughter or sister dies from heart disease, stroke or other forms of cardiovascular disease (CVD). And more than one in three women is living with CVD, including nearly half of all African-American women and 34 percent of white women. Although heart disease death rates among men have declined steadily over the last 25 years, rates among women have fallen significantly less."
While women are right to be alert to their risk for developing breast cancer, heart disease is actually their bigger health threat: It’s the No. 1 killer they face, and 50 percent of the time, sudden cardiac death is the first symptom of heart disease.
As I stressed in my book HeartSense for Women, women need to be proactive about addressing their risk and getting preliminary screening. A baseline EKG, and perhaps even an exercise stress test for a woman with risk factors by the time she is age 50, just makes great "heart sense," even if she has no symptoms. Once risk factors, or even underlying coronary artery disease are identified, then a woman can take measures to lower her risk. A woman’s intuition is her strongest asset, if only she stops to heed it.
A Message from Ms. O'Donnell
Luckily, Ms. O'Donnell had a happy ending and is back at home. She warns other women through the powerful, personal poem on her August 20th blog, when it comes to recognizing your symptoms for heart disease: “Know the symptoms ladies, Listen to the voice inside, the one we all so easily ignore. CALL 911. save urself.”
What about you? Were you aware that younger women could be at risk for developing heart disease?
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