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Health & Wellness 2024: Heart disease affecting 60 million women in U.S.

Here’s a startling statistic: Nearly 50% of women in the United States are living with some form of heart disease. That’s about 60 million women, said cardiologist Dr. Kendra Marsh-Kates.

The doctor knows there are times when women don’t recognize the signs of heart disease. A physician at Franciscan Health in Olympia Fields, March-Kates is working to educate women on the need to be vigilant, urging them not to ignore the signs.

Dr. Kendra Marsh-Kates demonstrates the workings of the human heart using a model. (Marilyn Thomas/H-F Chronicle)

“When I say heart disease, it’s a broad umbrella – heart artery disease and blockage, birth defects of the heart, acquired things like heart failure, all kinds of issues,” she said, “but 60 million of us are living with heart disease.

“The reason why we’re constantly raising and classifying better diagnostic tools for prevention is because we’re trying to cast the wide net for those patients we miss, that we don’t catch until unfortunately (in) the ER or at an autopsy. So, it’s still quite high.”

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Today, more women are in clinical trials and studies “to kind of correlate what their natural course to the disease is, giving us a better understanding of why.”

Whether the patient is male or female, chest pain should raise a red flag, but she said “women do tend to have less obvious symptoms of heart disease” and “women go through certain things that men don’t go through. A lot of cardiovascular diseases are due to hormonal changes. A lot of us come in with certain symptoms of heart problems related to menopause or related to pregnancy. Or even adolescent hormonal issues that develop from fluctuations at the time of their menstrual cycles.”

Young women need to be alert to issues that may cause heart health problems later on.

“We consider pregnancy like a stress test because of all the demands on our bodies, so things that are considered complications of pregnancy, like preeclampsia, those actually correlate to risk up to four times of developing traditional heart attack and stroke,” the doctor said.

“You think ‘Oh, in my 20s and 30s I have high blood pressure.’ That can haunt us in our 50s, 60s if we don’t keep an eye on those things,” she stressed. “There’s just so much complexity to womanhood and heart disease that we’re learning more because we’re studying it more and informing ourselves more.”

“Women have to be recognized. There have been a few large clinical trials from the mid-2000s that demonstrated that women are less likely to get progressive prevention guideline driven care,” such as statins and cholesterol medications, she said. “It’s unclear why, but compared to their male counterparts, probably a third of women do have a need for things like statin therapy but are less likely to get it.”

Studies are ongoing to learn why there’s apprehension, as well as for the need to recognize the symptoms.

Marsh-Kates said too often women work at getting their family members to the doctor, but they tend to downplay or ignore their own symptoms. The doctor believes women need to stop apologizing for worrying about their own care and know that “it’s okay to complain and talk about what’s going on so you can get aggressive in your health care and being empowered as a health care partner. You can get the treatments you need to prevent heart outcomes.”

The health care community “is being more aggressive at really pushing these preventative measures, like being on appropriate medications, really targeting good blood pressure therapies, not being afraid to talk about diet, exercise and weight loss in a way that’s not shaming. In a way that’s safe. In a way that’s empowering,” she said.

Better health can come from a modest amount of activity and weight loss. The changes will help patients “feel healthy. We know that exercising without weight loss can lower your blood pressure, slow your cholesterol; all those things that lead to bad cardiac outcomes,” Marsh-Kates said.

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