Guest Post by Kathy Magliato, MD
Cardiothoracic Surgeon, Providence Saint John’s Medical Center
Volunteer Expert, American Heart Association
Nearly every expectant mother has heard some variation of the following advice:
“Get in light exercise!”
“Make sure you’re sleeping enough!”
“Focus on self-care!”
These are good tips—healthy eating, exercise, quality sleep, and self-care are important to maintain a healthy pregnancy and postpartum recovery. But in addition to keeping mama and baby happy and active, these practices should also be part of a plan to protect yourself from heart disease, the leading cause of death in new moms.
Even young, healthy women are at risk. In fact, while heart attack rates have gone down in the 35 to 74 age group, a recent study found that heart attacks are on the rise in a younger subgroup of people ages 35 to 54, especially women. Younger women are also less likely to be aware of the threat posed by heart disease and less likely to recognize the warning signs of a heart attack, making it even more clear that heart health is an under-appreciated element of maternal and postpartum health.
Take the story of young mom Sindi Mafu, whose heart blood vessels, known as coronary arteries, tore while she was doing household chores, resulting in a heart attack. Sindi had no risk factors, a normal EKG, and was only 37 at the time of her heart attack. She was eventually diagnosed with SCAD (Spontaneous Coronary Artery Dissection), a condition that occurs when a heart vessel tears, and is currently on the road to recovery. Through research on the American Heart Association website, Sindi found online support groups and other SCAD resources that have helped her live a healthy, full life post-diagnosis.
It can be scary to think about: Sindi was young, healthy, and had no prior risk factors for heart disease or stroke. How can you protect yourself and your baby if you’re like Sindi—or if you have risk factors?
First, be aware! It sounds like a no-brainer, but awareness involves more than just knowing about the threat.
- Starting at age 20, get regular screenings for cardiovascular disease, sometimes abbreviated to CVD.
- Know your "health numbers," including: total cholesterol, HDL cholesterol (“good cholesterol”), LDL cholesterol (“bad cholesterol”), blood pressure, and blood sugar
- Know your family history to understand your risk of cardiovascular disease
- Talk to your doctor about heart disease, especially as it relates to your current or past pregnancy
Lifestyle changes that contribute to overall health can also lower risk by up to 80 percent. Pregnancy-appropriate physical activity, a healthy and varied diet, and quality sleep are all important for heart and overall health. Social connection, especially during this time when person-to-person contact is rare, is also important to self-care and contributes to a healthy lifestyle. Virtual groups for new and expectant mothers, community groups adhering to CDC gathering guidelines, and keeping in touch with friends and family are great ways to stay connected socially while staying safe.
Knowing what a heart attack looks like, specifically in women, is crucial. Depictions we see in movies and TV of heart attacks—clutching one’s chest, sharp stabbing pain, suddenly keeling over out of an easy chair—are dramatized symptoms of heart attacks in men. In women, heart attacks usually manifest in different and more subtle ways:
- Uncomfortable pressure or pain in the center of your chest, either lasting or in spurts
- Pain in one or both arms; pain in the back, neck, jaw or stomach
- Shortness of breath
- Cold sweats, nausea, and/or lightheadedness
Women are more likely than men to experience symptoms other than (or in addition to) chest pain, such as shortness of breath, nausea, vomiting, and back or jaw pain.
Just because you or a loved one don’t experience the dramatic and sudden onset of a heart attack that we have been conditioned to expect [from TV and movies] doesn’t mean you should disregard these symptoms.
Research on heart attacks, strokes, and other cardiovascular diseases has historically been dominated by older male test subjects. As a result, data on women, especially younger women and women of color, is limited. To better understand and address cardiovascular disease in these populations, we need to engage women in research!
Participating in research has never been easier. The AHA’s Research Goes Red gives women the opportunity to participate in clinical trials, surveys, focus groups, and more, advancing our knowledge of heart-related illness in this population. The AHA actively encourages women to participate in research. Together, we can fill in these gaps in the data and save countless lives.
Head to Go Red for Women to find tools and resources, including fitness tips, recipes, and information about local Go Red events near you.