Wear Red Day: 15 years of heart-disease awareness for Maine women

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PORTLAND — City resident Martha Doughty said she spent most of her married life more concerned about her husband’s heart health than her own.

That all changed last summer when Doughty, 56, drove herself to the hospital concerned that she may be having a heart attack.

Doughty now has a stent after doctors discovered one of the major arteries that pumps blood to her heart was nearly 100 percent blocked.

Doughty’s story isn’t unusual. Heart disease is the No. 1 cause of death for women in America, with a woman dying of cardiovascular complications nearly every 80 seconds.

But heart disease is still considered to be a men’s health issue, even by many doctors, although heart disease actually kills more women per year than all forms of cancer combined.

This week the local chapter of the American Heart Association is celebrating the 15th anniversary of Wear Red Day, a nationwide campaign established to create greater awareness of heart disease as a leading health threat for women.

Brenda Vitali, director of communications for the American Heart Association in Maine, said 90 percent of women have one or more risk factors for developing heart disease.

She also said in the past 30 plus years more women than men have died each year from heart disease and, unfortunately, the survival rate gap also continues to widen.

However, Vitali also said “there is good news. About 80 percent of cardiovascular diseases may be prevented.”

Prevention measures include sharing your family history with your doctor, knowing your blood pressure and cholesterol numbers and making simple lifestyle changes.

Vitali said women should also know that risk factors for heart disease include smoking, diabetes, and obesity, “especially their waist circumference.”

These are just some of the messages the American Heart Association will share Friday, Feb. 2, at Portland City Hall.

The event, which begins at 10 a.m., will include speakers like heart disease survivor Gail Blanchette from Buxton, cardiologist Dr. Jennifer Monti from Maine Medical Center and Portland Assistant Fire Chief Keith Gautreau.

“The AHA is asking all women to help Maine Go Red on this day by wearing red and raising awareness of this leading health threat,” the heart association said in a press release.

In addition, for the entire month of February, which is also American Heart Month, City Hall will be bathed in red light every day after dark.

Vitali said the goal of Wear Red Day is to “remind women to take care of their hearts and spread the word to other women.”

She said it’s hard to pinpoint why more women than men now die of heart disease but said one of the issues is that “women’s signs and symptoms can be more vague in nature.”

“This results in women … delaying treatment. Other times, women may go to their doctor (and be) misdiagnosed with anxiety or another health issue that could be confused with heart disease.”

Some of the heart attack and stroke warning signs in women are also less traditional than those experienced by men, Vitali said, and often include shortness of breath, nausea or vomiting and back or jaw pain.

She also said that many of the tests and treatments for heart disease “were designed for men’s hearts and may not be as effective for women.”

“We do not know why a woman’s survival rate is often poorer than men’s, but this is why we need more targeted research around gender differences.”

In all, she said, “Go Red For Women is a grassroots movement that calls on individuals, businesses, policymakers and the medical community to rally around this cause and advocate for more research and education to help save more women’s lives.”

Doughty said she was peripherally aware of Wear Red Day and the American Heart Association’s attempts to get more women to think about heart health prior to her own cardiovascular event, but always before thought “that doesn’t apply to me.”

Doughty, who works at IDEXX Laboratories in Westbrook, has two grown children and said suffering a heart attack or stroke “was never on my radar until it happened to me.”

Both of Doughty’s grandfathers died of heart attacks, but she always thought of heart disease as “a men’s thing.”

Her husband’s father dealt with health complications due to heart disease “at a fairly young age, so I was always more concerned about my husband than myself,” she said this week.

Now she knows how seriously women should take heart disease.

Since getting the stent, a tiny tube that holds her artery open so that blood can flow freely to her heart, she’s changed her eating habits and taken up regular exercise.

One of the reasons Doughty never thought she was at risk for heart disease is because her cholesterol levels have always been good, as has her blood pressure.

In addition, her symptoms didn’t add up to what she thought a heart attack or stroke would feel like.

“There were a few times when I was rushing around that I felt a tightness in my chest, but I just thought ‘wow, I’m out of shape,’” she said.

But when she also began to experience both some arm and jaw pain, along with what felt like a sore throat, Doughty knew something wasn’t right.

“I ended up googling heart attack and then thought, ‘if I’m looking up the symptoms of a heart attack I should get to the ER.’”

Doughty ended up being in the hospital for five days after a stress test “definitely showed I had a blockage.” The problem, she said, was that “my level of discomfort and the pain I was feeling really wasn’t that bad.”

The only thing that saved her life, Doughty said, was the inner knowledge that something just wasn’t right. “I just knew what I was experiencing wasn’t normal for me.”

Doughty is trying to cut salt and fats out of her diet and is eating more vegetables and is now “definitely way more aware” of the symptoms of a heart attack.

Her advice to other women is to “pay attention to your body, especially if there is a family history.”

Kate Irish Collins can be reached at 710-2336 or kcollins@theforecaster.net. Follow Kate on Twitter: @KIrishCollins.

For the month of February, which is American Heart Month, the front facade of Portland City Hall will be lit up in red after dark as a reminder that heart disease is the No. 1 killer of women.