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Sharp Health News

Shedding light on silent heart disease

Feb. 17, 2016

Shedding light on heart disease

Luz Lopez with her husband, Juan Antonio.

Luz Lopez's heart was racing, but it was nothing she hadn't felt at least a dozen times over the course of the last year, spent taking care of her elderly mom. The retired Sweetwater Union High School District teacher was a caregiver stretched thin, with her mom requiring repeat visits to the hospital, and certain that her symptoms were nothing more than anxiety.

Fortunately, her primary care doctor, Dr. David Hansen, suggested they make sure. After an electrocardiogram (EKG) produced normal results, Dr. Hansen suggested one more test — a stress test — which showed a slight abnormality. Luz was referred to Dr. Daniel Cepin, medical director of cardiology at Sharp Chula Vista Medical Center, who performed an angiogram that showed Luz's symptoms were not anxiety, but rather two blocked blood vessels that put her at high risk for a heart attack.

"I had chest pain, but just once. That was it. I didn't think it was anything, but Dr. Hansen said, 'Let's check you out. It couldn't hurt,'" Luz says.

Luz was in Sharp Chula Vista's cardiac catheterization lab the next morning, where Dr. Cepin implanted stents to open Luz's blood vessels to restore blood flow.

Heart disease is the number one killer of women, causing 1 in 3 deaths each year. Yet, only 1 in 5 believes that heart disease is her greatest health threat.

Heart disease affects the blood vessels and cardiovascular system. Many problems can result related to atherosclerosis, a condition that develops when plaque builds up in the artery walls. This buildup narrows the arteries, making it harder for blood to flow through. If a blood clot forms, it can stop the blood flow, causing a heart attack or stroke.

Heart disease can take many other forms, including:

  • Heart failure, which means that the heart is still working, but it isn't pumping blood or receiving oxygen as well as it should.
  • Arrhythmia, or an abnormal rhythm of the heart, which means the heart is beating too fast, too slow or irregularly.
  • Heart valve problems can lead to the heart not opening enough to allow proper blood flow. Sometimes the heart valves don't close and blood leaks through, or the valve leaflets bulge or prolapse into the upper chamber, causing blood to flow backward through them.

Studies show that making healthy lifestyle improvements have resulted in 330 fewer women dying from heart disease each day. Experts recommend the following to reduce the risk for heart disease:

  • Don't smoke
  • Get blood pressure, cholesterol and blood sugar under control
  • Be aware of any family history of heart disease
  • Exercise regularly
  • Lose excess weight
  • Make healthy nutrition choices

"I do Pilates three times a week and I use the elliptical. There's almost no heart disease in my family. I never thought heart disease would happen to me," Luz says. "I'm so glad Dr. Hansen and Dr. Cepin didn't ignore what was going on with me. It meant the difference between life and death."

"I want to tell other women that yes, sometimes the things you feel are a normal part of life, but sometimes it's something much bigger, like it was for me," Luz adds. "You have to tell your doctor what is going on."

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