Women’s Heart Health: Be Your Own Advocate

Although February is designated American Heart Month for everyone, oftentimes discussions of heart issues and tips pertain mostly to men. To highlight the differences between heart health for men and women, Healthy Me PA spoke to Dr. Maribel Hernández, director of the Women’s Heart Initiative at Main Line Healthspecializing in heart arrhythmias. She has been advocating for women’s heart health for over 20 years.

Dr. Hernandez noted that not only do women often have atypical symptoms for heart problems, but they have unique risk factors. She often sees women with heart palpitations and arrhythmias that were dismissed by other doctors as symptoms of anxiety or stress.  

What tips would you give women when it comes to taking care of their heart?

“I think, for women, the most important tip I can give is to be your own advocate. And what I mean by that is that if you think you have symptoms of heart disease or you are concerned something is wrong related to your heart, don’t let anybody dismiss the symptoms as stress or anxiety. Because we now know that many times, when it comes to women and the heart, the symptoms are different than men’s and women usually can tell when something is really wrong.

“To be your own advocate, another important thing is to really educate yourself, know your personal risk for heart disease, know your blood pressure and cholesterol numbers, know your family history, and know the symptoms of heart disease that are specifically different for women.”

What are some of the risk factors for heart disease in women that are nontraditional compared to men?

“Everyone is familiar with the traditional risk factors—cholesterol, diabetes, obesity, history of smoking, etc., but women have a series of unique risk factors.”

For example:

  • Preeclampsia during pregnancy can increase the risk of heart disease at a higher rate and at a younger age
  • Radiation therapy and chemotherapy for cancer can further the risk of weakening of the heart muscle. Oftentimes, this can be prevented with monitoring throughout the process

Other potential risk factors for women:

  • Menopause before 45 years of age
  • Inflammatory diseases such as lupus and other autoimmune diseases that are more common among women
  • Pregnancy

Why is being your own advocate so important as a woman?

“While panic attacks and stress can cause fast heart rate and palpitations, many women know when these symptoms arise as the result of some external factors going on. So if you’re feeling calm and watching television and out of the blue your heart starts racing or you’re experiencing palpitations, that might be a symptom of a problem with the electrical system of the heart.

“I always say that the diagnosis of palpitations due to anxiety and stress can only be made after you’ve been fully evaluated. And because of the many tools we now have that we didn’t have in the past, it is much easier to diagnose whether it is stress or it is a heart problem.

“Over the years, I have seen many women that were treated with anti-anxiety medicine or treated for panic attacks, and upon being further monitored, it wasn’t anxiety at all. It was actual arrhythmia that could be treated with a procedure or medication.

“I’ve had more than one patient that has been treated for anxiety for years, and they were told they were crazy. I remember one woman told me, ‘I thought I was nuts because I knew it wasn’t panic attacks or stress.’ So it could be anxiety-related, but you should always be evaluated first to make sure.”

Heart health is a topic rarely aimed toward women, but the truth is, women aren’t immune to the dangers of heart disease. Always be your own advocate, and trust your gut when you think something isn’t right. As Dr. Hernandez said, it’s always better to get evaluated than to let someone pass your concerns off as something else.