By Katy Macek
If a loved one came to you complaining about neck pain, shortness of breath or strange heart palpitations, you’d likely pause in concern and tell them to get it checked out.
But what if you were the one experiencing those symptoms, which UW Health preventive cardiologist Dr. Karen Moncher says could be early signs of heart problems?
If you’re like many women, Moncher thinks you’d likely put it to the back of your mind.
“The first thing we always tell women is to listen to their bodies,” Moncher says. “We allow our own healthcare to be somewhat mediocre, whereas we would never allow that for our partner or children.”
During American Heart Month in February, Moncher advises women to be vigilant about their heart health, which she sees as something that is often overlooked until it’s too late.
“Start thinking about it when you’re young,” she says. “For women much more so than for men, the first sign they have of heart problems is a cardiac arrest, and clearly, we’ve missed the boat then.”
That’s why it’s so important to note small changes in your everyday routine. For example, if you go up the same set of stairs every day for five years and one day you notice you’re more short of breath, that should get your attention.
Walking up a hill and noticing your legs are more sore than normal also could be a sign of vascular disease. Lightheadedness and arm, neck or shoulder pain are other symptoms.
Symptoms like the above may be nothing more than dehydration or lack of sleep, but Moncher says it’s important to get it checked out. Maintaining a good relationship with your doctor is also important to feel comfortable sharing concerns.
According to the National Heart, Lung and Blood Institute, coronary heart disease, or clogged arteries, is the most common type of heart disease. This can lead to heart attacks and strokes. General risk factors for heart disease— and, Moncher says, many heart-related problems—are high blood pressure, high cholesterol, an unhealthy or sedentary lifestyle, obesity, diabetes, smoking, a family history of heart disease and age.
It’s especially important to note your blood pressure numbers (see By the Numbers). As blood pressure goes up, it can shear away the endothelium, which Moncher says is the “brain of the artery.” When that’s injured—be it through high blood pressure, high cholesterol levels, tobacco use or other causes—cells come together to attempt to repair the endothelium, but sometimes make it worse.
A damaged endothelium, or endothelial dysfunction, leads to the arteries’ inability to relax and dilate when needed. Essentially, the arteries cannot keep up with blood flow. Moncher recommends simple things women and people of all ages can do to maintain a healthy heart. Regular exercise and a healthy diet go a long way, Moncher says, adding, “Most often I can tell if a patient is exercising.” This is evident through what she sees in tests, such as lipid panel numbers, which measure a type of fat known as triglycerides. She says triglycerides in particular are sensitive to exercise and weight loss. In a technology-centered world, Moncher says she’s seen how being constantly online can lead to higher levels of stress. Her last bit of advice to women is simple: Find joy and connection. “Doing something for yourself, spiritually or mentally, is really important,” she says. “Find joy every day, laugh and have a good sense of humor.”
BY THE NUMBERS
Experts at the National Heart, Lung and Blood Institute recommend keeping blood pressure, cholesterol and triglycerides in check to ensure good heart health. Elevated levels put you at greater risk for coronary heart disease or stroke. Your age and risk factors will determine how frequently your doctor recommends getting them tested.
A reading less than 120/80 mmHg is considered normal. 120/80 to 139/89 mmHg is considered in the normal to high range and should be monitored.
This is a type of body fat, or lipid. A normal level for adults is less than 90 mg/dL. If your levels are consistently 150 mg/dL or higher, you may be diagnosed with high blood triglycerides.
This fat-like substance found in all cells is used to make hormones, vitamin D and substances to help you digest food. For your overall number, ideally, it’s less than 200 mg/dL. 200- 230 mg/dL is considered borderline high.
HIGH-DENSITY LIPOPROTEIN (HDL) CHOLESTEROL:
Referred to as “good” cholesterol, HDL cholesterol absorbs cholesterol and carries it back to the liver, where it’s flushed from the body. In this case, aim for a number that’s 50 mg/dL or higher.
LOW-DENSITY LIPOPROTEIN (LDL) CHOLESTEROL:
Sometimes called “bad” cholesterol, this makes up the majority of your body’s cholesterol. Too much LDL cholesterol leads to plaque buildup. Aim for less than 100 mg/dL.