Categorized | Health & Fitness

Women & Their Hearts

Posted on 28 February 2013 by admin

By Dr. Amitha Mundenchira


 As a physician, I care for many women from the South Asian background. Regardless of culture, it remains a fact that majority of women put their families before themselves and their own health.

 The proof lies in the “26-year-old teacher who gives up her career to stay at home to take care of her children and her extended family, while her husband works” or in the “50-year-old homemaker who is working 24/7 to take care of her different family members with different schedules”.

These women may be happy with their roles but biological factors do catch up. Not attending to one’s own needs eventually does take a toll on both mental and physical health. There is a risk of missing health conditions in early stages when intervention can prevent progression or a risk of death from these conditions.

Heart disease is one of many such conditions. One of my patients in her late 60s kept ignoring her 3-month- history of chest pains at night because she was too busy taking care of her children/grandchildren and did not want to bother anyone for a ride to my office. Eventually, she got care when she ended up in the emergency with a massive heart attack.

February has been declared HEART MONTH by the Heart&Stroke Foundation – it is the foundation’s largest grassroots fundraising initiative. The Heart Truth as defined by the foundation is that heart disease and stroke is a leading cause of death for women in Canada, but most don’t know it. It is a bigger killer than even breast cancer. The Heart Truth campaign is lead by a Leadership Council of 18 prominent Canadian women like Olympic athlete Diane Jones Konihowski and TV broadcaster Vicki Gabereau; it is financially supported by leading Canadian corporations. – mail.

A key component of The Heart Truth is the Red Dress Fashion Show, which typically takes place during Fashion Week in March. The iconic Red Dress symbol is designed to engage women of all ages, sizes, ethnic backgrounds and socio-economic status in the campaign.

South Asians—including Indians and other ethnic groups like Pakistanis and Sri Lankans—are up to three times as likely as all other ethnic groups combined to die of heart disease, according to a study from the Palo Alto Medical Foundation. The overall heart disease rates among South Asian women are as high as or higher than South Asian men – this can be attributed to genetics.

Women often fail to make the connection between risk factors, such as high blood pressure and high cholesterol, and their own chance of developing heart disease. If women make appropriate lifestyle changes to cater first to their own health, they can reduce their risk of heart disease. The lifestyle changes include eating well and staying active – this automatically can help reduce the stress that comes naturally with putting oneself last. Staying active can be as simple as daily 30-minute routines of brisk walking without breaks; walking inside the home or inside a mall are alternatives for the cold or snowy days.

Eating well includes both eating the right food and the avoidance of skipping meals. When in the grocery store, choose more products with the Health Check logo ( Also, read the Nutrition Facts table to compare products and make healthier choices. Using oil is a major part of our South Asian cooking. A simple possible change is to try baking, broiling, grilling, steaming or roasting instead of pan frying or deep frying. Choose vegetable oils that contain healthy unsaturated fats like canola oil, soybean oil or olive oil. Limit fats that are high in saturated or trans fat such as ghee or vegetable ghee, butter, hard margarine, lard or shortening. The following link has heart-healthy South Asian recipes as reviewed and approved by the Heart&Stroke Foundation dietitians – high in fibre and low in saturated fat/cholesterol/salt:

The above link also has resources to help prevent and manage risk factors like high blood pressure – the pamphlets are in different South Asian languages including Hindi.

Dealing with day-to-day stress may be the hardest. However, managing stress early is important to prevent progression to depression or other psychiatric disorders. Some simple steps include sharing feelings and setting aside daily time for self to pursue a hobby or to just relax.

Putting others before oneself leads women to downplay their symptoms. The following may be symptoms of a heart attack and should not be ignored:

(1)   sudden discomfort or pain that does not go away with 10-15 min of rest

(2)   pain may be in the chest, neck, jaw, shoulder, arms or back

(3)   pain may feel like burning, squeezing, heaviness, tightness or pressure

(4)   chest discomfort that is brought on with exertion and goes away with rest

(5)    pain with difficulty breathing

(6)   pain with sweating or clammy skin

(7)   pain with nausea or indigestion

(8)   pain with anxiety

A diagnosis of heart disease that may result from not taking the above mentioned preventative measures may be further devastating. However, the sooner the acceptance of the condition, the easier it will be to manage with the help of the healthcare system and with the support of family/friends.

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