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National Wear Red Day: What heart doctors want women to know

Heart disease is still the No. 1 killer of women nationwide, causing 1 in 3 deaths per year. Yet misperceptions about cardiovascular disease persist. 

On National Wear Red Day, Shimoli Shah, M.D., an assistant professor of medicine (cardiovascular medicine) in the OHSU School of Medicine, OHSU Knight Cardiovascular Institute, shares the questions she wishes her female patients would ask and the information she wants them to understand

What questions do you want your female patients to ask? 

I want patients to ask me how they can play a more active role in reducing their own risk of cardiovascular disease via lifestyle changes, for example.

What do you wish your female patients would tell you? 

One thing we are learning is woman’s health during pregnancy can affect future risk of cardiovascular disease. I want women to recognize that conditions like gestational diabetes, gestational hypertension or preeclampsia can increase their risk of future vascular events. I also always appreciate when my patients are upfront about their lifestyle – whether they smoke, what they eat, how much they exercise, etc. It helps establish an open dialogue and provide better support for my patients.

What do you do to take care of your own heart health?

I try to eat a balanced diet, i.e., I eat foods that are low in saturated fat, eat lots of fruits and veggies and use portion control. I try to go to the gym, walk or squeeze in whatever activity I can into my busy schedule. I also find “me time” for self-care, which is not only vital for my own health, but also for my family's.

Why is heart disease still the No. 1 killer of women? 

There continues to be an increased awareness about women and heart health, but many women minimize or ignore their symptoms because they are too busy caring for others. Conditions like hypertension, obesity, smoking, strong family history and diabetes all increase a woman's risk of cardiovascular disease -- similar to their our male counterparts. 

What does the future of women’s heart health look like? 

I think the future of women’s heart disease is exciting. Advances, and the recognition that women have different heart issues, have been very validating and are critical for tailoring treatment of cardiovascular disease in women.

How is a woman’s heart different than a man’s?

With regard to cardiovascular events, sometimes women present with unrecognized symptoms like heart burn, fatigue and shortness of breath. There are specific cardiovascular conditions that affect women more than men, and there are also noncardiovascular conditions like rheumatoid arthritis and lupus, for example, that are more prevalent in women and are associated with a higher risk of cardiovascular disease.  

OHSU Heart-healthy plate

People talk about the Mediterranean diet being good for heart health. Why is that? 

The Mediterranean diet is low in saturated fat and high in lean protein, fruits, veggies and legumes.

What are the biggest risk factors for heart attacks in women? 

There isn’t one single risk factor; it’s a combination of factors -- family history, diabetes, age, obesity, smoking history, cholesterol, bad cholesterol levels, pregnancy history -- we take all of this into account.

You just had a baby. What advice do you have for parents?   

Women who do most of the meal preparation and grocery shopping in the home can have a profound effect on the habits our children develop. Raising kids to be active, eat healthy foods, and stay away from high-sugar, high-fat foods, and foods with low nutritional benefit, is a great start.   

What is something you may not know about cardiologists? 

Sometimes we need the same nudge we give patients about exercising and staying healthy! 

Should women be taking any special vitamins or supplements for heart health? 

No, not across the board. That’s something to talk to your health care provider about. 

How do sleep and stress affect a woman’s heart? 

Higher stress levels can, in general, affect mental health, and mental health has a big impact on heart health -- think depression and repeat heart events. Sleep is so strongly related to mental health and stress, so it’s important to get adequate sleep and practice self-care.

Is there a particular exercise regimen or program you’d recommend? 

I would recommend staying away from fads. Find what’s right for you and what makes you feel good. Get out there and move, and get your heart rate up. If you don’t have a regimen, start walking longer distances than you used to (work your way up), park your car further away from the store, take the stairs instead of the elevator, join a local gym or go to your local community center, which can be an affordable option. Also, keep a food diary. You’d be surprised how many calories you’re getting – it adds up quickly.  

Check out the OHSU Knight Cardiovascular Institute’s Facebook and Twitter pages for updates throughout the day, and follow National Wear Red Day on Twitter at #GoRedWearRed or @GoRedForWomen

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