Women’s Heart Health

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Written by Dr Nikki Stamp, Cardiothoracic Surgeon

Heart surgery is pretty amazing. It’s how I make my living every single day.

You come in to my operating theatre and when you’re asleep, I make a cut down the middle of your chest, from just below the top of your breast bone, to the bottom of it, splitting the breast bone in half. I use a heart lung machine to put your heart and lungs into a state of suspended animation, so I can use some arteries and veins I’ve borrowed from your leg or your chest to re-plumb the blockages in your heart arteries. I’ll put your breast bone back together with stainless steel wires. At the end of the operation, which takes around four hours, you go back to an intensive care unit where we watch your blood pressure and heart rate amongst other things with lots of machines and tubes. If everything goes well, you go home around five days after your surgery. You get to visit the doctors pretty regularly and take pills morning and night to keep your heart healthy.

Sound like fun? If you’re keen on heart surgery, let me know. I can recommend smoking, not exercising much, being overweight and not looking after your blood pressure or diabetes. If you’re extra lucky and were born with genes that mean your body is geared up to have a heart attack, it will be even easier for you to get to meet me in a professional capacity.

In Australia, heart disease is the number one killer of women. That’s more than breast cancer, lung cancer, ovarian cancer or accidents. And women are pretty good at thinking that it won’t happen to them. If you ask a woman if she can name someone who has had a heart attack, a man will probably be first to mind. For me, it’s my grandad Ron. He had his first heart attack in his 40’s! Being unaware that we women have a serious problem with heart disease means that it’s easy for it to take hold.

I want you to know that we can prevent heart disease. Up to 90% of Australian women have what we call a ‘modifiable risk factor’ for cardiovascular disease. That means virtually all of us have high cholesterol, diabetes, smoke or high blood pressure. Even young women are at risk. Aussie women aged 35-44 are more likely to be overweight than a normal weight, a recognised risk factor for heart disease.

In addition to all of this, the ladies tend to get help later. Why is that? The symptoms of say a heart attack, are little different to men. Rather than the typical crushing chest pain, ladies may have less pain, pain elsewhere or other symptoms like feeling short of breath, tired or tummy pain.  Plus we just don’t think it’s our problem. It’s a man’s disease. So we are less likely to seek help for heart-related troubles because we think it’s something else, something less serious.

So what do we do about this nasty killer of Aussie women?

First thing – it is never to late to make changes. Studies have shown that stopping smoking or losing weight decreases your risk of heart disease even if you were once a smoker or obese. Don’t put it off. Today is as good a day as any to make a positive change. Your GP is a great resource for help in reducing your personal level of risk including weight loss, quitting smoking or managing your cholesterol or blood pressure.

Secondly, be aware ladies. Heart disease is stalking virtually all of us. We women must be aware that yes, it can happen to us. Virtually any of us. If you think you might be at risk or you think something is wrong, get help. I really hope that if we raise awareness that more women will make positive changes in their lives and seek medical help promptly. I hope even more that this will mean we can start taking back some territory from heart disease.

So if you would like to avoid me and having heart surgery, get in contact with your GP to get a check up for your blood pressure, cholesterol and diabetes. Stop smoking and start getting active. Eat a balanced diet with lots of fruit and veg most of the time.  It’s now time to attack this problem head on and keep our hearts healthy and happy.


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