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From The Wichita Eagle

Alive & Well Wichita Eagle Tuesday, February 12, 2008

Heart disease: Is it you?

The good news: Heart disease is survivable. The bad: Too many women don't pay attention to it.

BY: KAREN SHIDELER - The Wichita Eagle

Here's the scary bottom line: Heart disease kills almost eight times as many Kansas women each year as breast cancer does.

And most women, especially younger ones, don't know much about heart disease, in part because we tend to think of it as something that older men get.

Wrong, says Kate Heithoff. "It's me," the 16-year-old says. "I've lived it my whole life."

Kate was born with heart problems and had surgery when she was 3, then another procedure a couple of years ago.

Congenital heart disease, like Kate's, is "relatively prevalent," says Wichita cardiologist Joseph Galichia. The National Heart, Lung and Blood Institute says it occurs in 8 of every 1,000 births.

But it's only one form of heart disease that affects younger women, Galichia says.

Nationwide, the incidence of coronary heart disease, a narrowing of the blood vessels that supply the heart, is on the increase among women 45 and younger. The death rate in that group also is rising, though it is dropping for every other age and gender group. Coronary heart disease is the form most often associated with heart attacks.

Mitral valve prolapse, which sometimes is discovered during pregnancy, means the valve between the heart's left chambers doesn't close properly. Often, it's harmless and doesn't require treatment, Galichia says. If blood is leaking backwards, the valve can be fixed or medication can be used.

An abnormal heartbeat is called arrhythmia. Often, it feels as if your heart is racing. It isn't likely to result in sudden death, but it can masquerade as "very, very serious heart disease," Galichia says. It may be treated with radiofrequency ablation, a pacemaker or other means.

Kate started having arrhythmia problems two years ago. Her heart "would just start going really fast. It was kind of weird," she says. Testing showed scar tissue in one part of her heart; ablation burned it away.

"I'm better," Kate says. "It really helped me." But she still must watch what she does. A piano player who loves writing and reading, she is a typical teen who likes hanging out with friends. But the soccer, tennis and volleyball she used to be able to do have been replaced by walking, yoga and Pilates. She's not supposed to have caffeine or chocolate ("but I still do," she says), and she has to stay hydrated.

She'll continue to have heart checkups on a regular basis and will continue to speak out about the importance of knowing about your heart.

"It's important to pay attention to what your body is screaming to you," she says.

Galichia says that advice goes for all women and for their doctors. Too often, he says, heart disease symptoms aren't recognized in young women who don't think they're at risk. But with smoking, being overweight and other risk factors becoming more common, he says, the risk is real.

The good news: People who have heart disease are living longer because of advances in treatment. That means there's a lot of life to look forward to for young women such as Kate.

  • Genetics. Having a sibling with heart disease is a giant red flag.
  • Smoking, especially if you also take oral contraceptives.
  • High cholesterol.
  • Being overweight.
  • High blood pressure.
  • Having diabetes.
  • A sedentary lifestyle.

In one study, nearly 90 percent of women with heart attacks had chest pain - but only 42 percent thought something was wrong with their heart.

Other symptoms they reported:
  • Pain in jaw or shoulder, 58 percent
  • Sweating, 38 percent
  • Nausea, 29 percent
  • Shortness of breath, 29 percent
  • Heartburn or indigestion, 21 percent
  • Weakness or fatigue, 8 percent

Average number of deaths from heart disease each day in Kansas 16

Number of all deaths in 2006 in Kansas from heart disease 5,831

Number who were female 3,018

Number who were 44 or younger 50

Number of Kansas women who died of breast cancer 395

Number who were 44 or younger 20

Only group in which death rate from heart disease has gone up in recent years: Women ages 35 to 44

Source: Kansas Annual Summary of Vital Statistics, 2006; study by Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and Britain's University of Liverpool.

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Wichita, KS 67220

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