Heart disease is the most common cause of death for both women and men in the United States. Often referred to as the “silent killer,” the term heart disease encompasses a large number of diseases of the heart and many women at risk for heart disease go undiagnosed until they have a major problem, such as a heart attack.
In honor of American Heart Month, HER Magazine sat down with Dr. Oyidie Igbokidi, an interventional cardiologist at CHI St. Vincent, to discuss the ways women can take care of their hearts and avoid problems as they age.
Born in Nigeria, Dr. Igbokidi attended medical school there for six years before relocating to the states to finish her residency training in Chicago, which was three years, and fellowship at the University of Iowa, which was an additional three years. She worked as a general cardiologist in Virginia before returning to school for additional education and training to become an interventional cardiologist.
During her medical training, she said, the branch of cardiology is what she was most intrigued by.
“I was always happy to go see the patients, and even on a long, tired day, I always wanted more,” she said. “My dad always told me that I had the calmness and the patience to be a physician. My sister did have an accident and suffered a spinal cord injury when she was 15, almost 16, and so that sort of inspired me also to become a doctor and try to do something that could help other people. She’s an inspiration to me, as well.”
One in three deaths are caused by heart disease in women each year. That’s
approximately one woman per minute. Some of the risk factors for heart disease include high blood pressure, diabetes, obesity, smoking, family history and having a sedentary lifestyle.
The one factor that is “growing in leaps in bounds in America,” Dr. Igbokidi said, is obesity.
“Being overweight, the way that it actually translates is that most of the risk factors that predispose a patient to heart disease, you will develop as you gain weight,” she added.
For instance, patients who become overweight tend to develop diabetes and tend to have high blood pressure. Or, they may have metabolic syndrome, where the patient might not have diabetes but will instead have high blood sugar levels, high blood pressure, an increased waist circumference and abnormal cholesterol levels, which increases your risk for heart attack and stroke.
But, make no mistake — it is just as possible for a thin person to have an unhealthy heart as it is for an overweight person.
“Being thin doesn’t mean that you’re healthy,” said Dr. Igbokidi. “Some thin people, genetically, they have thinner families but they don’t eat healthy, don’t exercise, so they still can have all those risk factors.”
One of the risk factors that are typically seen in thin patients, or patients who have lived a healthy lifestyle, is a family history of heart disease or high cholesterol levels.
“They may have a family history of either high cholesterol level — those are transmitted by genes, obviously to the patient — or they have someone in their family who actually had early onset heart disease, so that increases their risk,” Dr. Igbokidi said. “Or, they have a familial elevated cholesterol disorder which, regardless of how healthy they are, and the numbers may not be as bad, but, typically, it would be challenging not to have an abnormal cholesterol pattern.”
The symptoms of heart trouble are the same, regardless of your size. In women, the most common symptom is chest discomfort, which is typically located on the left side of the chest, but could be in the center of the chest or in the upper abdominal area.
The reason that so many women are affected by cardiovascular problems each year is because some of the symptoms are atypical, and some women don’t have any noticeable symptoms at all.
“Some of them just have excessive fatigue, shortness of breath, anxiety, poor sleep and swelling of the lower extremities, so those things, if anyone has any of those symptoms, they certainly need to have a discussion with their primary care doctor, who may recommend that they visit with a cardiologist,” Dr. Igbokidi said.
When asked why heart disease is referred to as the “silent killer,” she said the No. 1 reason is because a lot of people are completely unaware that it is the No. 1 killer in the United States, adding, “a lot of people are scared of having cancer and think that might have a higher mortality rate, and that certainly is not the case.”
A lot of women just simply don’t experience any symptoms. Most people who have high blood pressure feel normal.
“If you have a patient who has untreated high blood pressure, they can develop an aneurysm. The aneurysm can actually rupture and they will die instantly,” Dr. Igbokidi said. “They can develop renal failure, they can develop an acute heart attack. Some patients will have frequent headaches, blurry vision and dizziness from the blood pressure being really high. But the majority of patients just don’t have any symptoms with high blood pressure.”
For mothers of young children, having the children develop and maintain good habits at an early age will give them a good start to a healthy heart.
Teaching them to eat healthy and having healthy food options available is a good place to start. Encourage them to get away from the television and go outside and play. Put them in sports or school activities that involve physical activity and encourage them to interact with their peers and friends.
“It is obviously a challenge for a working woman who is busy and has children to be able to plan, and that was me several years ago. It’s very, very difficult to do, and so I can see how it can be a challenge to always have a healthy meal for the kids to eat. And, the cost of eating out, so you have to balance that. If you go out to eat, obviously the healthier options cost more and it makes it very difficult,” said Dr. Igbokidi.
She added that, while in medical training, she would cook over the weekend and store prepared meals in the refrigerator or freezer for the week.
“I’ll never forget, one Monday during my training I was supposed to meet with the chief resident at 7 o’clock in the morning and I’d been up cooking until like 3 o’clock in the morning,” she said. “So I showed up at 7:15 and she was so upset, so I said, ‘I’ve been cooking,’ and she called my husband and said, ‘this woman has no business cooking at 3 o’clock in the morning!’ It’s difficult to organize; I never did it perfectly, but I tried to do that most weekends, to cook and package and put everything in the refrigerator and the freezer so the kids could have some healthier, home-cooked food. But, we did visit McDonald’s a lot, too.”
Dr. Igbokidi said one of the most critically important things to do to reduce your risk for heart disease is to know your risks — you can’t do something about it if you don’t know what your risks are.
If you start experiencing sudden onset chest discomfort, typically with excessive sweating, shortness of breath and nausea, the No. 1 first aid step, Dr. Igbokidi said, is to dial 911. She said it is also recommended to take four baby aspirins, to give yourself immediate, emergent care.
CHI St. Vincent recently partnered with Arkansas Heart Clinic in Little Rock, which Dr. Igbokidi said is the largest cardiology group in the region. The partnership allows CHI to provide more extensive services to its patients.
When asked what she thinks the most common misconception about heart health is, she said, “I would say that something I saw frequently in the past is a lot of women would make the assumption that they were protected, which is really not true. We’re at higher risk when compared to men and the fact that, when we present with heart disease, most women present late because most of the symptoms are atypical and unusual and so the disease is usually far more advanced, and our vessels are smaller, which is more challenging to treat.
“Fortunately, the size of stents have actually evolved to smaller stents. It used to be because of the size of our vessels, it was difficult to treat because they didn’t have stents that were small enough,” she added.
For Dr. Igbokidi, being a cardiologist is a very, very rewarding profession, she said, adding, “it’s a calling, it’s a service. Yes, you do get compensated for it, but it’s a service.”
When asked what advice she would give to a young person considering a career as a cardiologist, she said, “A lot of younger adults these days feel somewhat challenged because they look at the time it takes to get through the training, but it’s rewarding, and no job is easy. There’s not a single job that is easy, and that’s what I tell my children. Whatever you decide, just know that it is going to be difficult.
“If you want to be a doctor, it’s going to be difficult. If you want to be a teacher, it’s going to be difficult. If you want to be a janitor, it’s going to be difficult. You have to work, regardless of what you do, and every job is important, and that’s how we all function. Every single person’s job is important. The teacher’s job is actually more important than mine because they’re educating and helping to mold our children. My advice is, if it’s something you’re thinking about, to get into it and stay at it, even when you get challenged, to realize that that’s what life is about.”
Being able to talk to and educate her patients is what Dr. Igbokidi said she finds most rewarding about her job.
“There’s so many things that we can do for a patient, but if we don’t educate the patient to know how to make lifestyle changes, you have done them a disservice,” she said. “They’ll keep coming back and keep doing the same thing, and sometimes, unfortunately, patients are at a stage where you can’t help them.”
When they aren’t working, Dr. Igbokidi and her family enjoy going to the movies and going to the shows and festivals in Hot Springs.
“There are tons of fun things to do in Hot Springs. It’s a beautiful, quaint town. It has a lot to do, and if you’re someone who likes to do more, there’s so many of the other cities close by that you can get to easily. We’re getting into race season and watching those beautiful horses is just awesome.”