At 51, Mary Gordon is the picture of health. Sporting long brown hair and a youthful face, the Daytona Beach resident is a muscular 5' 2" tall and weighs 105 pounds. She kayaks, bicycles, rides a motorcycle, cares for her three dogs, works three jobs and is a mother and grandmother with a life partner.
She has also had two heart attacks. When she had the first one, five years ago, she did not know what was happening. "I was at my job when I had to sit on the floor as I was not feeling well," Ms. Gordon said. "The paramedics were called and my vital signs were perfect so I went home and the symptoms subsided."
But she began feeling bad again and ended up in the emergency room where she coded (her heart stopped) and she had to be defibrillated twice. Women's health experts say it is not uncommon for women who are having a heart attack to think they just have the flu or heart burn. Even though it is the No. 1 killer of women in this country, heart disease is still seen as a men's disease.
"(When talking about women's illnesses) everyone thinks about breast cancer - rightfully so, it's a scary thing," said Ormond Beach gynecologist Julie Schneider, "but you're (most likely) not going to die from breast cancer, you're going to die from a heart attack."
Through education and marketing, women's health experts are hoping women will become more aware of taking care of their hearts and knowing what is happening if they do experience a heart attack.
Ms. Gordon had symptoms for three days that she ignored. She was nauseous, in a cold sweat and couldn't feel her hands above the elbows while driving. "I have a high tolerance for pain and discomfort and tend to push myself," she said. "So I just ignored the symptoms."Even when she had her second heart attack this past June she didn't immediately think it was happening again.
"I was mowing my lawn when I felt pressure under my breastbone along with a nauseating feeling, but again was in denial," she said. "I figured I would catch my breath and it would go away."
After it did not, she called 911. According to Dr. Maria Lopez, a Daytona Beach physician who specializes in cardiology at Florida Hospital, women with heart disease are too often undiagnosed or diagnosed late. This stems not only from the fact that doctors don't always think about heart disease in women, but that symptoms in women with heart disease can be different from men. They can include sweating, fatigue and even depression and are often diagnosed as a flu or even hormonal issues. "We have to change our thinking as more women die of heart disease than cancer," Dr. Lopez said. "As physicians we need to rule out heart problems before blaming the presenting symptoms on something else."
Because of the lack of timely diagnoses, more women die. "Cardiovascular disease is the No. 1 killer of women, yet it is mostly preventable," she said. As with men, exercise, good nutrition and no smoking can greatly lessen women's chances of developing heart disease.
Nancy Bevault, Director of Communications for the Central Florida Chapter of the American Heart Association, said that heart disease does kill more women every year than breast cancer - 12 times more. That amounts to nearly 500,000 American women each year.
"Until 15 years ago, the focus on heart related problems was on men," Ms. Bevault said. "However, misconceptions and differing symptoms between men and women are now being addressed. The goal of the American Heart Association is to heighten awareness among women and inspire lifestyle change."
Much like pink has become the highly recognizable color of breast cancer awareness, red is the color the Heart Association has adopted to get more women thinking about heart disease prevention. The Go Red For Women Campaign (www.goredforwomen.org) is designed to dispel myths, raise awareness and empower women to know the risks of heart disease and take charge of their own heart health.
"Seven years ago only 13 percent of women knew that heart disease was their No. 1 killer," she said. "Today 55 percent of women are aware."Even if women know they should protect themselves against heart disease, Dr. Lopez said, it is sometimes difficult to convince them to take care of themselves.
"Women spend so much time taking care of others," she said, "they neglect themselves."Dr. Lopez recommends women exercise at least 30 minutes a day, even if that just means a leisurely walk. Keeping a healthy weight using portion control is also important. Dr. Lopez recommends a diet that includes vegetables, grains, fruit, nuts and fish. Alcohol moderation is recommended as well.
Just as for men, there are risk factors that raise the odds of women developing heart disease, Dr. Lopez said. Smoking, being overweight, having high cholesterol and high blood pressure, having diabetes and having a family history of heart disease will all up the odds.
But, just like heart disease, many of these conditions are preventable with diet and exercise. Ms. Gordon, who has a family history of heart disease (her mother survived a heart attack in her 50's), lives an active, healthy lifestyle and will never allow heart disease to sneak up on her again.
"Given my history ... of course there is some fear," she said. "But I have always had an extreme zest for life and fear won't change that. I will continue to live each day as if it is my last but I certainly don't want it to be."