At Kalispell Regional Medical Center’s recent Heart Health Fair, Dr. Thomas Amidon drew looks of surprise when he said heart disease kills more women than men and that more women die from heart disease than all forms of cancer.
He admitted to a bias toward women’s health as a man living in a home full of females.
“I’ve got a wife, three daughters, three mares and two female dogs,” he said.
Amidon said he speaks about women because the medical field has considered heart disease a man’s disease for centuries. The general public still labors under that misconception.
Surveys as recent as 2006 found 51 percent of women thought cancer was their biggest health threat while only 13 percent picked heart disease.
“And yet, if you look at the number of deaths caused by cardiovascular disease, it was substantially more than cancer,” he said.
Statistics on heart disease according to age group show that 20- to 40- year-olds have little worry, but the numbers of cases steadily increase in the 40 to 60 group, the above 60 age group and especially above 80, where 92 percent of women have some form of vascular disease.
Women also don’t receive their fair share of study participation or emergency treatment.
“If you look at medical research, women only comprise about 25 percent of research subjects in the clinical research that we do,” Amidon said. “Women are less likely to receive timely, life-saving medications and care. Now that’s not true in Kalispell, but it is throughout the country.”
Other statistics were surprising.
Women are 20 percent more likely than men to die of heart disease.
Within a year of a heart attack, 36 percent of women will die compared to 20 percent of men.
After a heart attack, 46 percent of women will be disabled compared to half as many men.
Women are more likely to have a second heart attack than men.
Amidon said a heart attack is commonly thought of as pressure or squeezing in the chest but also may include discomfort in the neck, jaw, stomach and down the arms, particularly the left arm. Light-headedness and fainting affects women a little more than men.
“In women, it’s more common for symptoms of a heart attack to only be nausea, anxiety, palpitations and a cold sweat,” he said. “So these symptoms shouldn’t be ignored.”
Amidon related the story of a woman in recent weeks who had those symptoms but didn’t want to bother anybody. She waited nine hours before going to the hospital.
“By the time we flew her over here and opened her clogged artery, I think it was a little too late to save that part of her heart muscle that was damaged,” he said. “Early detection and early treatment are paramount.”
The cardiologist described the heart as a muscle that pumps blood to the rest of the body but needs its own blood supply. This blood supply must come through the coronary arteries.
“The blood that is flowing through the heart cannot nourish the heart,” he said, pointing to an illustration of the network of coronary arteries around the heart.
He said the arteries may develop plaques of cholesterol deposited in the lining of the artery that bulges and narrows the coronary artery. Amidon said a patient can have this happening without knowing.
If the bulge of plaque tears the artery lining, the plaque may flow like lava out of a volcano, exposing the core to blood. Blood subsequently forms a clot to repair the artery lining tear.
Amidon said that operation works fine on the outside area of the artery.
“But what if it happens where the artery is narrowed?” he asked. “The turbulence in flow here is going to cause the clot to obstruct the artery and cut off blood flow altogether.”
As an interventional cardiologist, Amidon takes the patient to the catheterization laboratory where he uses minimally invasive procedures to enter the body through an artery to reach and remove the obstruction.
“Generally we have four to six hours to do that,” he said.
According to Amidon, men and women have risk factors they can’t control such as age, ethnicity and family history. However, people can control their blood pressure and cholesterol, stop smoking, exercise and lose weight to lower their risk of heart disease.
He said people don’t have to go to spin class five times a week to benefit their hearts.
“If you just get up and use the stairs instead of the elevator, if you push the vacuum, if you walk for 20 minutes, you are going to get the majority of benefit from exercise,” he said. “If you lose weight, we want it to be slow and steady, not drastic and dramatic. And we want the lifestyle changes to be permanent.”
People may find more heart information in “The Sublime Engine, a Biography of the Human Heart” a book Amidon co-wrote with his brother, Stephen Amidon. Thomas Amidon practices as part of Rocky Mountain Heart & Lung, a division of Northwest Healthcare.