Top five myths of heart disease; whether you are a career woman in her prime, a retiree, a spouse, sibling or caregiver.
Heart disease is a man's disease
Women are not immune from heart disease. In fact, the leading cause of death in women is cardiovascular disease (heart disease and stroke): it claims the lives of eight times more women than breast cancer in Singapore. One in three Singaporean women dies from heart disease and stroke every year. This is more deaths than any other disease, making it the top killer among women. For younger women, smoking boosts heart risks more than in men.
Heart attack symptoms are the same in men and women
Both men and women can experience the stereotypical heart symptoms - severe chest pain, cold sweat etc - but women, more often than men, may have subtler, less recognisable symptoms, such as abdominal pain, a dull aching in the jaw or back, nausea and shortness of breath, unusual tiredness or fatigue and even depression. This is often exacerbated by prolonged stress from balancing the competing demands of home, work and children over time. Instead of identifying these symptoms as red flags of heart disease, women often blame being out of shape, overeating and not having enough holidays. This can be deadly. Unfortunately, the number one way women present with heart disease is dead (sudden cardiac death) -- they didn't seek help at the earlier warning stages of chest pain or fatigue.
I'd feel sick if I had high cholesterol or high blood pressure
Both men and women can suffer from high cholesterol or high blood pressure without experiencing early warning symptoms. That's why they call these conditions ‘silent killers'. Nor do you need to be overweight, old, a smoker or have a family history of the disease in order to suffer from it. Remember, you might not feel anything when your cholesterol is high or your blood pressure is high, until you suffer a heart attack or a stroke, when it is too late. One in three adults has high blood pressure, and a third of them don't know it. It is therefore important to check both regularly, regardless whether you are skinny or fat, whether you have bad habits or not, whether it runs in your family or not, and even when you are feeling well. Everyone should know what constitutes healthy blood pressure readings.
There's nothing I can do to prevent heart disease
There is plenty that you can do to reduce your risk for heart disease. To start with, you can control your diet, stop smoking and exercise consistently. Knowing this is one thing; equipping yourself with the tools to do this right is another. Popular misconceptions of what constitutes a heart-healthy diet must be debunked: not all vegetarian options are heart-healthy, just because you are skinny doesn't mean that your diet is heart-healthy, not all low-fat or fat-free options are heart-healthy, etc. Heart healthy meals can also be very practical and delicious. Similarly with exercise, women need to be educated on how much exercise is enough? How much is too much? Are older women still expected to exercise?
If my doctor did not order tests, I can assume I am safe from heart disease
The truth is that even doctors are more tuned to screen for cancer in women, so that screening tests such as PAP smears and mammograms are routinely ordered but heart screens are often neglected. This is due in part to the success of cancer awareness campaigns such as the pink ribbon campaign and it demonstrates the urgent need for similar awareness campaigns for heart disease. Remember that more women are going to die of heart disease. With greater awareness of risks, patients themselves can be empowered to ask for tests to screen for heart disease or their risk factors. With diet, exercise and control of risk factors, heart disease is often preventable.
Let’s get up close and personal with Dr Carolyn Lam, who heads the National University Hospital (NUH) Women’s Heart Health Clinic
Dr Carolyn Lam graduated from the Faculty of Medicine, National University of Singapore and trained in general Cardiology at the Cardiac Department of NUH. Following that, she went on to Mayo Clinic and pursued a Research Fellowship at the Cardiorenal Laboratory, Heart Failure and Advanced Cardiology Fellowships at the Division of Cardiovascular Diseases, and a Master of Biomedical Sciences.
She worked at the Framingham Heart Study in Massachusetts, United States, before returning to Singapore. She currently maintains affiliations as Assistant Professor of Medicine, College of Medicine, Mayo Clinic, and Adjunct Assistant Professor, Section of Preventive Medicine & Epidemiology, Boston University School of Medicine in the United States.
Dr Lam is passionate about her work at the Women’s Heart Health Clinic but it is just one part of this human dynamo’s incredibly busy work schedule. A large proportion of her time is dedicated to clinical research. She returned to Singapore to continue her research work when she won the Clinician Scientist Award and the NUHCS Centre Grant. However when she observed the unmet clinical needs of Asian women with, and at risk of, heart disease in Singapore, she decided devote herself to the cause.
Dr Lam says that her passion for educating women, especially Asian women about women’s heart health comes from being an Asian career woman herself, and understanding, on a personal level, the challenges women face. It’s no cliché when she says, “men just don’t get it.”
To maintain her affiliations in the United States, she has to travel a great deal, though she say the long flights are when she gets the most work done. Apart from work, she tries her very best to practice what she preaches in terms of healthy lifestyle choices, so exercise, prayer, meditation, spending quality time with loved ones and getting enough rest are priorities.