Women have a lot of fears when they go into labor, but having a heart attack is not usually one of them. Though that is exactly what happened to Julie Manning during a routine cesarean while delivering her second son. The most shocking part -- she was just 35 at the time.
According to the American Heart Association, it's something every woman needs to be concerned about. Heart disease kills more women than all the cancers combined. In fact, it is the #1 killer of all women (regardless of age).
A marathon runner and working mother, she was active and healthy -- or so she thought. But during the C-section, she started feeling dizzy, short of breath, and her arms began shaking. A pediatric cardiac nurse practitioner, she checked the heart monitor and knew something was very wrong. Though her baby was fine, her heart wasn't beating properly.
So instead of being sent to the maternity ward with her baby like most new moms, she was sent to the cardiac floor and had to wear a mobile device that would monitor her heart.
Weeks later, a cardiologist would give her a frightening diagnosis. "I knew when the doctor called me herself right after my appointment that I was in for some bad news," Julie recalled. Turned out, her heart was pumping with only half the normal amount of blood. She had cardiomyopathy and doctors recommended several medications and a surgical procedure to correct her ventricular arrhythmia.
There was just one problem: her heart had far too many problem areas to successfully complete the surgery. During the procedure, her heart stopped and doctors had to shock her twice. Now she lives with a defibrillator that will shock her heart if it stops beating again. Needless to say, that reality terrified her. "I worried about taking [my kids] out in the stroller and my heart suddenly stopping," she said. "I wondered each day if I would live to see my husand come home from work that night."
Now, however, she sees her illness differently. Adopting a more positive outlook, "my total focus is loving my family and raising my two boys," Julie said, who makes a point of staying physically active and eating right. "I take care of myself, and I live for and enjoy the moment."
To protect yourself, there are things every woman needs to know and everyday habits that must change. You may think it will require a major lifestyle overhaul. That's not always the case. During a recent Go Red for Women event hosted by The Huffington Post and the American Heart Association, experts revealed the small, even seemingly insignificant changes that could save your life.
- Pay attention to your body. Women can have different symptoms than men. For example, while feeling overwhelming chest pressure (akin to an elephant sitting on you) is common, that is not always the case. Women are more likely than men to have other symptoms, like shortness of breath and pressure or pain in the upper back, lower chest, or upper abdomen. There may also be dizziness, lightheadedness, fainting, or extreme fatigue. Other signs include a cold sweat and nausea.
- Women commonly confuse the symptoms with the flu or other non-threatening conditions. Or they are just too busy with work or family to take a moment and really listen to their bodies. "The most important thing a woman can do for her body is to put herself first," says Ary Nunez, founder of Gotham Global Fitness. "You can't serve the world if you are not taking care of yourself."
- Sleep matters more than you think. Insufficient sleep or poor sleep may actually lead to cardiovascular problems, according to Dr. Michael Grandner, an instructor at the University of Pennsylvania's Department of Psychiatry. "Sleep fuels your cells and just about every system in your body. People who get less than six hours are more likely to have hypertension, suffer from obesity, and have concentration issues. People who sleep seven to eight hours a night are at lowest risk."
- Another major risk? "Women who have elevated blood pressure or elevated blood sugar during pregnancy are at increased risk of heart disease later," warns Dr. Suzanne Steinbaum, director of Woman & Heart Disease at New York's Lennox Hill Hospital.
- When you are trying to adopt a healthier lifestyle, remember to "keep it real," says Crystal Wall, owner of Mix Fitz Fitness. "With school, work, and husband, there is not enough time to go to the gym every day. Don't beat yourself up. Take baby steps." Incorporate fitness into your day in small ways -- walking the dog, taking the stairs. Even small things help.
- Gradually overhaul your diet, experimenting with recipes. If your family members are big rice eaters, try brown rice instead of white. Replace butter with olive oil, cook meatless meals twice a week, and opt for healthier fast food options, like Subway.
- If you have a history of heart disease in your family, remember that "your genes are not your destiny," says Dr. Madelyn Fernstrom, the health and diet editor at NBC News. Some people have a self-defeating attitude about it and essentially give up. But "80 to 90 percent of the time, heart disease is preventable," she adds. "It is due to lifestyle."
- Avoid stress. Easy to say, harder to do. But stress is a big risk factor. Find things that relax you and force yourself to take the time to do them. You are not being selfish, you are potentially saving your life.
Have you dealt with heart disease? What are you doing to fight it?
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