It started with a series of "niggles." This is how native New Zealander Kim Lohnes describes the irregular sensations she felt in her chest.

Shortly after waking up one morning this past December, a wave of nausea swept over Kim. It was followed by light-headedness and jaw pain that began radiating down her arm. She recognized trouble. It felt similar to the heart attack she suffered 10 years earlier – at age 42.

Kim’s husband immediately dialed 9-1-1 and arriving paramedics rushed her to Saddleback Medical Center. Her medical team at the MemorialCare Heart & Vascular Institute at Saddleback Medical Center found an 85 percent blockage of blood flow to her heart. In a matter of hours, stents were placed in Kim’s coronary arteries as part of a life-saving angioplasty procedure.

“I was in complete shock. I thought heart attacks only happened to people in their seventies. And here I was having my second one at 52 years of age,” says Kim.

Know Your Enemy

Contrary to popular perception, the number one killer of women is heart disease – not breast cancer – according to the American Heart Association. And while studies show a decrease in coronary heart disease in men ages 35-54, diagnoses of women in that age group have increased.

“Research is underway to better understand the reasons behind this growing phenomenon,” says Sasan Ghaffari, MD, subsection chief of cardiology at Saddleback Medical Center.

Over the past few years, Saddleback Medical Center was one of 325 hospitals nationwide that participated in the VIRGO study, which focused on recoveries in women ages 18 to 55 following a heart attack. Prior to VIRGO, little research had been directed toward understanding heart
disease in this group.

“Studying gender differences helps us improve preventive care and therapies for our patients and women everywhere,” adds Dr. Ghaffari.

Understanding a Woman's Heart

A family history of cardiovascular disease put Kim at greater risk. In other women, lower levels of estrogen, red blood cells, and even HDL or “good” cholesterol, indicate a higher likelihood of a cardiac event.

“We’ve discovered that smoking risk is greater in young women than young men,” says Ryland Melford, MD, a cardiologist at Saddleback Medical Center. “Concerning diabetics, it’s no secret they are at a greater risk for heart disease. What’s surprising is that female diabetics have double the risk for a heart attack than their male counterparts.”

Symptoms may also differ. Women have more pre-episode nausea than men yet tend to ignore or attribute the problem to some other condition, such as acid reflux or the flu. This lack of awareness can lead to dangerous delays in seeking treatment.

“We are also finding increasing levels of stress-related cardiomyopathy in women,” says cardiologist Margaret Leila Rasouli, MD. “We call this form of heart disease ‘broken heart syndrome’ because it can occur suddenly after emotional or mental stress from a divorce, death of a loved one or unexpected job loss.”

Hope for Hearts

Those challenges notwithstanding, cardiac specialists at the MemorialCare Heart & Vascular Institute at Saddleback Medical Center continue to make major inroads in the prevention, diagnosis and treatment of coronary heart disease. Working closely with physicians at affiliated medical groups, the Institute has developed a culture of cross-discipline education and collaboration.

“Today, when a pregnant woman tells her gynecologist that she is experiencing shortness of breath, the doctor has been trained to recognize the potential for heart problems, and they’ll reach out to our cardiology team for accurate diagnosis and treatment recommendations,” says Dr. Melford.

“I encourage patients to sustain health-minded lifestyles, be vigilant about noticing health changes and seek early detection,” says Dr. Rasouli. “Together, we can conquer heart disease.”