Sep 3, 2019
About 800,000 Americans have a heart attack each year—and younger women account for nearly one-third of them, according to a recent study. Dr. Patrick Bering discusses what’s causing this rise in heart attacks.
Intro: MedStar Washington Hospital Center presents Medical Intel where our healthcare team shares health and wellness insights and gives you the inside story on advances in medicine.
Host: We’re speaking with Dr. Patrick Bering, a cardiologist at MedStar Washington Hospital Center. Thank you for joining us, Dr. Bering.
Dr. Bering: Thank you so much for having me. It’s a pleasure.
Host: According to a 2018 study, younger women are having more heart attacks. In fact, they’re accounting for nearly one third of all female heart attacks in recent years. Today we’re going to discuss why this is, and ways women can prevent heart attacks. Dr. Bering, could you begin by explaining why we’re seeing this rise in heart attacks among young women?
Dr. Bering: Absolutely. This is definitely an alarming trend that’s seen nationwide. One of the reasons why we think we’re seeing more young women hospitalized with heart attacks is that there has been an increase in the cardiovascular risk factors among young adult women. Among these would be things like high blood pressure, diabetes, obesity, smoking and poor lifestyle, including poor diet and low physical activity levels.
Host: And is this something you’re seeing only in young women or young men as well?
Dr. Bering: We see premature heart disease both in young men and young women. Unfortunately, we have been seeing a trend for increased hospitalizations for heart attacks in young women more so than young men. There may be some additional risk factors that young women have. And, when I say young women, I mean women and young adults, so between the ages of 35 and 55. And these can include women who have conditions such as polycystic ovarian syndrome, premature menopause or a history of preeclampsia during pregnancy.
Host: Are there certain demographics of young women that you’re seeing more than others?
Dr. Bering: That’s an interesting question and one that we’re still gathering information about. It seems to be important where you live from a socioeconomic perspective. In that way, your neighborhood may actually be a risk factor, positive or negative, for your development of heart disease. We do see a high amount of premature heart disease in African American women, which is a concern for us and we aim to combat this from many different facets, aiming at preventing the risk factors for heart disease. Or, if they develop, to try to optimize them to prevent any long-term consequences to cardiovascular health.
Host: Are there symptoms or warning signs of heart attacks that people should be aware of?
Dr. Bering: Definitely. You hear about classic symptoms which include pressure on the chest or some people describe it as an elephant sitting on the chest. These classic symptoms are more common in men. Unfortunately for women, the symptoms may be more atypical. They can include things like heartburn, fatigue, shortness of breath, low energy, acid reflux, nausea. Because women have more atypical symptoms of heart disease, they may be less likely to seek medical attention at the time that they’re experiencing something like a heart attack.
Host: Could you expand on some of the symptoms young women may have?
Dr. Bering: Certainly. As I said, this can be confusing, even for the healthcare community, at times. Since young women or even women post-menopause are more likely to have atypical symptoms that may be gastrointestinal, it has to be in context with the rest of their symptoms and well-being. If there’s been a change in their ability to do physical activity or exercise, that goes along with symptoms of heartburn or nausea, low energy or fatigue - those combinations are more worrisome than if it’s just heartburn after they’ve had, say, a spicy or acidic meal.
Host: Is there any point at which somebody should definitely see a doctor?
Dr. Bering: Absolutely. If someone is having significant shortness of breath or decreased energy, intractable nausea, or heartburn that doesn’t get better with usual methods such as an antacid, they should seek medical attention, especially if they have a history of premature heart disease in their family or if they have risk factors for heart disease that we described before - high blood pressure, diabetes, obesity, poor diet, poor physical activity, high cholesterol.
Host: What can young people do to prevent heart disease?
Dr. Bering: That’s a great question and one of our most important ones. At an individual level, young people can be aware of their health, in a way that prevents the development of risk factors for heart disease. That generally goes along five different related and intertwined steps to positive health. Those include things like healthy diet, regular physical exercise, control of blood pressure, control of weight and focusing on positive stress and mental health in their life. Even things like getting 7 to 8 hours of sleep per night is a very important step of focusing on your overall health.
Host: Could you explain how regular doctor checkups could go a long way in young people preventing heart disease?
Dr. Bering: Definitely. For young people, even though many of us feel well or healthy, or we may have a lack of medical problems, some of the risk factors for heart disease may actually be silent. Many people don’t FEEL that they have high blood pressure and instead, they discover it later in life once some of the consequences of high blood pressure have accumulated over time in the body. A regular checkup with your primary care health provider every year is an important way for you to have a dialogue and positive relationship with the health care community. We, in health care, are very excited about seeing patients where we can make positive influences to prevent disease. And, in fact, that seems to be one of our...or actually, our MOST successful strategy, when we are combating disease.
Host: Why is MedStar Washington Hospital Center the best place to seek care for heart disease?
Dr. Bering: At MedStar, we’re so proud to serve our community and we’re lucky that we have passionate healthcare providers that can focus on a variety of issues related to your cardiovascular health. In one sense, we have great primary care physicians, as well as cardiologists, who are focused on the prevention of heart disease. In another sense, if you are unfortunate enough to develop cardiovascular disease or the risk factors for it, we have a team of experts that are able to provide you with comprehensive, expert care in order to manage your conditions optimally in a strong dialogue with you. We like to make our care patient-centered so that everything is focused on goals that we can achieve with the patient themselves.
Host: Could you share a story in which a young patient received optimal care for heart disease at MedStar Washington Hospital Center?
Dr. Bering: Absolutely. I’ve recently had the privilege of taking care of a young woman who had initially thought that she had symptoms of acid reflux. As it turned out, this was actually a heart attack in its beginning stages. Since she presented with atypical symptoms, our emergency room physicians were keen enough to look for a cardiac cause and discovered the early signs of the heart attack. When she came under my care, I was able to get her the appropriate procedure that she needed in order to open up a blocked blood vessel supplying blood to her heart muscle. In that sense, we were able to successfully handle her care, both from the moment she hit the door in the emergency room to the point of discharge with minimal heart damage and overall good heart function.
Host: Thanks for joining us today, Dr. Bering.
Dr. Bering: It’s been a pleasure. Thank you again.
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