Commonly described as the silent killer, more women die of cardiovascular disease than from the next four causes of death combined.
One of the biggest contributors to that statistic is the lack of awareness of preventative measures to reduce the risk of cardiovascular disease, according to Physicians Assistant Kim Decker at West Michigan Cardiology in Greenville.
“The most common risk factors leading to cardiovascular disease are smoking, high blood pressure, high cholesterol, diabetes and a family history of heart disease,” Decker said. “Obesity contributes to a lot of that, increasing your risk for diabetes, which in turn, increases your risk for heart disease.”
Signs of cardio problems vary between genders
Decker said too many women die each year because they don’t recognize the signs women show with cardiovascular problems. Between men and women, the signs vary greatly.
“Women do not typically have the classic symptoms such as chest pain, radiation down their arm and shortness of breath,” Decker said. “Women are commonly misdiagnosed because often they only display one of these symptoms and it becomes more difficult to diagnose as a cardiovascular issue.”
Decker said if you find yourself exercising and are short of breath or suffering chest pain, you should see your doctor immediately.
“For some reason, it’s not really known, men tend to have the classic symptoms of chest pain and radiation down your arm,” she said. “It doesn’t mean that women can’t get those symptoms, but women are more likely to get the atypical symptoms such as shortness of breath, fatigue and belly and back pain.”
Decker said the first step toward preventing heart disease is taking immediate action.
“With diet and exercise, you can make a change to your lifestyle immediately,” she said. “As far as diet, I would recommend eating lean meats and lots of vegetables. Eating whole grains instead of starchy things is always a good idea.”
When exercising, Decker said exercising 40 minutes five days a week, is the recommended level.
“Despite all efforts that can be taken, you should still talk to your primary doctor,” she said. “If there are issues there, you can be advised to see a cardiologist.”
Waiting for a renewed life
Two years ago, Dar Morgan of Greenville went for a regular check-up. Since then, his life has never been the same. Morgan was diagnosed with cardiomyopathy, a heart muscle disease.
Today, he sits in his sister’s living room with a heart that is now powered by a left ventricle assisted device (LVAD), which is powered by batteries.
“If you had a stethoscope and you listened to my heart, you’d hear a buzzing sound,” he said. “I’m a phone call away from a new heart but there’s no telling when that day will come.”
When Morgan was first diagnosed, he was put on heart medication called carvedilol, specifically, Coreg.
“I responded great to that drug,” he said. “I exercised a lot more, lost 40 pounds and I felt great.”
But in May 2011 Morgan ended up in the hospital after a virus attacked his heart and discovered his heart was operating at just 14 percent efficiency. According to Morgan’s physician, the outlook did not look promising.
“My doctor told me to get things in line and call my priest,” Morgan said. “He said there was nothing he could do for me.”
On borrowed time
Two days later, however, Dr. Michael Dickinson, a cardiovascular specialist with Spectrum Health’s West Michigan Heart in Grand Rapids, told Morgan there was a way to keep him alive with potential for a heart transplant.
A month later, Morgan had surgery to install the LVAD device and directly connect it to Morgan’s heart. It is now keeping him alive.
Morgan said long-term VADs are normally used to keep patients alive with a good quality of life while they wait for a heart transplantation, known as a “bridge to transplantation.”
“This is my lifeline,” he said. “They could have sent me home with pills, but I never would have made it.”
Morgan now lives with his sister, Tammy Morgan, at her home in Greenville. She has been trained in all aspects of handling the LVAD device.
“You have to always be aware of your surroundings,” she said. “If a kid comes up to hug him, they could accidentally pull out that cord. It goes straight to his heart, without a second thought, they could kill him.”
Though Morgan says there was no way to predict this could have happened, he does believe he could have taken steps to prevent it.
“I am a diabetic, I had shortness of breath, but I didn’t live the best lifestyle to keep myself healthy and avoid cardio diseases,” he said. “I hope my situation can be a lesson to others, to get yourself checked, to take care of yourself, exercise and eat properly.”
Until a heart is suitable for transplant is available, Morgan will continue to live with the LVAD devise functioning his heart.
“It’s always with me,” he said. “Hopefully the day will come when I get a new heart and can return to the life I had.”