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Transforming Health: Women should know family heart history

Written by Megan Lello, witf Reporter and Producer | Feb 28, 2013 4:02 AM

(Undated) -- More than one in three adults currently lives with at least a type of heart disease, which is particularly deadly to women.

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Kim Leo was 46 years old when she had a serious heart attack.

Kim Leo of New Cumberland has experienced severe heart problems firsthand.

The 46-year-old was having a great couple of months when she arrived at work one morning last May. Her daughter had gotten married recently, and she'd run a 5K the month before.

But all of a sudden, something wasn't right. "As soon as I got to my desk, out of nowhere, this sudden onseat of nausea came over me. Within seconds, I started to perspire, and I knew that something was very wrong because that is not normal for me."

It turns out something was wrong. "At the time, I really didn't know I was having a heart attack. I was 99 percent sure it was heart-related, but I still didn't think I was having a heart attack, and I really didn't know that until a later time."

Leo had a serious heart attack---one that's sometimes called the "widowmaker." She had a 99 percent blockage of her left main coronary artery.

After emergency surgery, she eventually recovered.

She'd been aware of a family history of heart disease, and had been on medication for high blood pressure.

But Leo ate well and exercised regularly.

So she wondered: "How did this happen to me?"

Heart disease is the number one killer of women in the country. It accounts for every one in four deaths among females. In a Centers for Disease Control study conducted between 2007 and 2009, Adams County posted among some of the highest heart disease death rates among women in the U.S.

Christina Ring is a nurse practitioner with PinnacleHealth based in Harrisburg.

She says women sometimes ignore the warning signs of a heart attack because they may not seem so serious at the time. "A lot of people picture that Hollywood movie, clutching of the chest, falling over, and all that stuff. And it can be as simple as some nausea and fatique. Who isn't tired everyday? Increased anxiety. And a little increased tightness or fullness."

Ring says risk factors for cardiovascular disease include high cholesterol, high blood pressure, being overweight or obese, and smoking.

And, she says, being aware of your family history is key. "[It's] huge because a lot of the things patients have, say, for instance, high cholesterol, you don't feel them. You can't tell by looking at somebody how their cholesterol is, and then with that family history, that really drastically increases their risk of a cardiac event."

Sixty-three-year-old Cathy Sholly of Etters, York County, first had her cholesterol checked decades ago.

Her grandfather and father both died at young ages of heart attacks. "I guess I was in my 20s. I had gone to the same doctor my father went to, and he just thought that it'd be a good idea, since my grandfather had it, too, to run a blood test on me. And that's when I first found [high cholesterol.]"

The CDC says if a person has a family history of early heart disease, which presents itself before age 50 in males or 60 in females, cholesterol screening should start around age 20.

Sholly has been on cholesterol medication ever since. She’s had several catheterizations for artery blockages, including an instance when she had a 100 percent blockage in an artery.

But her body’s handled it and she makes a point to try to stay as healthy as possible. "I go to the Cardiac Fitness Center in Hershey two times a week for exercise now that I'm older, and I do watch what I eat, also."

She says as a mother, she’s given advice to her children about the importance of living a healthy lifestyle, especially since they're at increased risk for heart disease.

It’s a message that also resonates with Kim Leo in New Cumberland.

Leo says she feels so strongly about sharing her story, she's begun volunteering with the American Heart Association. "The symptoms that women experience are very different than what men experience. And heart disease is still perceived as a man's disease, and that is so not the case."

Leo says she's concerned about her daughters, who are at increased risk of a heart attack.

But she chooses to spend less time worrying and more time advocating. "When at all possible, it's the best thing for you, and for your children, to be aware of that family history so that you can seek physicians for regular, preventative care and make the healthy choices."

Leo says she hopes those healthy choices will help other women live long, healthy lives free of heart disease.

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