Let’s Talk Health: Women and Their Heart Health

By Mark J. Bonamo 

All women know that their cardiovascular health is critically important. Dr. Ali Elfandi, an Interventional Cardiologist at Saint Clare’s Health, works every day to diagnose and treat heart issues. He is also sensitive to the unique female cardiovascular issues.

To begin, female physiology provides certain challenges for women of all ages and can appear as early as around age 20. According to Dr. Elfandi, “Pregnancy can generate or exacerbate various adverse medical conditions affecting both the working of the heart, as well as blood pressure.”

“Pre-eclampsia is the hallmark of very high blood pressure that occurs during pregnancy, which then affects the heart. Cardiomyopathy occurs when the heart loses the ability to efficiently pump blood and can make the heart very weak at a time when blood flow is critical,” Dr. Elfandi said. “That’s serious stuff.”

The disease that receives arguably the most attention regarding female health is breast cancer. However, according to the National Institutes of Health, cardiovascular disease is known to have the highest rate of mortality in women. While one in 31 American women dies from breast cancer each year, heart disease is the cause of one out of every three deaths.

“A woman would always think that female-related cancers would be more of a threat to them in terms of mortality. But the reality is heart disease remains the number one killer,” Dr. Elfandi said. “And because we are seeing increasing rates of obesity and diabetes, the rates of heart attacks, strokes, and congestive heart failure is predicted to be increasing. 

For both men and women, numerous risk factors also play a role in the onset of heart disease. Dr. Elfandi pointed out these factors, which lead to atherosclerosis, which is plaque buildup in the coronary arteries. Plaque is comprised of the buildup of fats, cholesterol and other substances in and on the artery walls.

“The most common risk factors are obesity, sedentary lifestyle and smoking,” said Dr. Elfandi. “Then after that, you have high cholesterol, high blood pressure, also known as hypertension and diabetes, especially type two diabetes.”

Family history is another critical factor.

“If men in your family, especially close relatives, had a heart attack before the age of 55, that’s considered early or premature coronary heart disease. And then if it’s a woman, premature heart disease is considered to have happened if a woman has a heart attack before the age of 65,” Dr. Elfandi said.

Dr. Elfandi emphasized that while there are several serious threats to female heart health, steps can be taken to lessen the chances of the disease occurring. It’s clear that quitting smoking can improve cardiovascular health. It’s even clearer that a more active life can actively block heart disease.

“You have to commit to regular exercise. If you aim for at least 150 minutes of moderate intensity exercise a week, that’s only 30 minutes a day, five days a week,” Dr. Elfandi said. “Working to keep your blood pressure 120 over 80 or less also helps. The same thing goes for cholesterol, especially if you have a family history of high cholesterol and early heart attacks.”

However, it is still the heart attack, otherwise known as a myocardial infarction, that is foremost in people’s minds when it comes to cardiovascular health crises. A heart attack usually occurs when a blood clot blocks blood flow to the heart. Without blood, tissue loses oxygen and dies.

Symptoms include tightness or pain in the chest, neck, back, or arms, as well as fatigue, lightheadedness, abnormal heartbeat, and anxiety. Women are more likely to have atypical symptoms than men are. This includes the sensation of having intense heartburn or nausea.

No matter the symptoms, Dr. Elfandi underscored the need to seek treatment sooner rather than later.

“Patients sometimes believe that it’s just muscle pain, and if they rub the area and get some sleep, it will just go away. Instead, they wake up a few hours later, and they’re really sick,” Dr. Elfandi said. “If people ignore the problem, it can sometimes be too late to save the muscle. So I would always encourage people to be proactive, and if they ever develop symptoms that are new to them, especially chest pain and shortness of breath don’t take it lightly and seek immediate medical attention.”

Treatment for a heart attack includes taking the patient emergently for a cardiac catheterization to reestablish the blood flow through the blocked artery. Other options can include lifestyle changes, cardiac rehabilitation, medications, and surgical options such as, bypass surgery.

“When patients arrive at the hospital, we would do an electrocardiogram, which records the electrical signal from the heart to check for different heart conditions. We can confirm whether or not a heart attack has occurred,” said Dr. Elfandi. “Once it is confirmed, we can perform the life-saving emergency cardiac catheterization, and place a permanent stent to open the artery and restore blood flow to prevent further damage. Again, it’s critically important to diagnose a heart attack as early as you can.”

Dr. Elfandi also pointed out the importance for patients to know that if they have a serious cardiac health problem, they can trust the exceptional cardiac care at Saint Clare’s Health, just around the corner in their community, as well as ahead of the curve offering advanced technology.

“We’re talking about heart attacks here, as we say, time is muscle. The closer you are to the hospital, the better,” Dr. Elfandi said. Saint Clare’s Health has a new state-of-the art cardiac catheterization lab that you could not find a better one in a university hospital. 


“You should always exercise more. You should always have a healthier diet. But the fact that we have a nationally-ranked program equipped with advanced technology here at Saint Clare’s that is so close to home should put people at ease,” added Dr. Elfandi.


For more questions about your cardiac health or to make an appointment with Dr. Elfandi, please call 973-784-6900.


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