As a second-year medical student at the University of Toronto’s Women’s College Hospital, Martha Gulati had an “ah-hah” moment that shaped her life.
Cardiologist Dr. Nanette Wenger – “one of the main people who started looking at women and heart disease when I was a medical student” – told the students that heart disease in women had not been studied.
“What she basically told us was we’ve ignored women’s (heart) health,” says Gulati, who like many, assumed men and women were treated equally when it came to studying heart disease, treatment and medication.
Her own study of the literature backed Wenger’s assertion.
“We’re just at the infancy of understanding women and their hearts,” Gulati says.
The realization cemented her career path. “There was nothing else, I was going to be a cardiologist,” Gulati says.
“The reason it hit a personal note is my grandmother had died of a stroke and (I wondered) what does that mean for me, and what does that mean for my sister?”
Oak Bay’s Carolyn Thomas, the first Canadian accepted to the Mayo Clinic’s annual Science & Leadership Symposium for Women with Heart Disease, welcomes Gulati for a free Heart Month talk. The two co-present Heart-Smart Women, Feb. 28 at the Monterey Centre.
After attending the WomenHeart Science & Leadership Symposium at Mayo Clinic, Thomas founded the blog HeartSisters and has raised awareness about women and heart disease.
“Carolyn has reached so many women in North America and beyond,” Gulati says. “I think women want to know and Carolyn really has an ability to connect. … She’s been able to communicate to women that they could be at risk of heart disease.”
Professor of Medicine and Chief of Cardiology at the University of Arizona, Gulati is the best-selling author of the book Saving Women’s Hearts and dozens of medical journal research papers on women’s heart disease.
“She’s also a fabulous speaker, and truly one of the rock stars in the world of women’s cardiology,” Thomas says, noting the session will take place in the auditorium to accommodate what she hopes will be the biggest audience ever for the annual talk.
While inroads are being made today in the study and research of women’s heart health, more needs to be done.
For example, while two-thirds of women will present the typical symptoms of a heart attack, one-third will present differently. Women may not realize they’re experiencing heart problems, and it may not be on the radar of medical professionals, she says.
“I tell women, if you don’t know, just ask (doctors), ‘Do you think I’m having a heart attack?’”
Given that women are active proponents for their health, communication is key to reducing the statistics, she says, noting 80 per cent of heart disease is preventable. “There are simple steps we can take to change our risk.”
Other factors may not be in women’s ability to change, but information gives women the permission to advocate for their own heart health.
For breast cancer survivors, for example, heart disease risk also increases, not only because of similar risk factors generally, but also because of residual effects of some treatments. Those with gestational hypertension and gestational diabetes also show greater risk for heart disease later on – something they may be unaware of since the conditions disappear following pregnancy.
Busy schedules can also put women’s own health concerns on the back-burner, since while more women are working, they still tend to be the primary caregivers for children and aging parents. In addition to the time crunch this can cause, stress a big component of heart disease, Gulati says.
“You can’t take care of others if you haven’t taken care of your own health first.”
And that’s where awareness comes in.
“When you empower women, they act on it,” Gulati says. “I think we’re still dealing with awareness. About 50 per cent of women do realize heart disease is the No. 1 killer but there is a gap we need to close.”
When & where
• Heart-Smart Women runs from 10 to 11:30 a.m. Feb. 28 at the Monterey Centre.
• The session is free but reserve your seat at 250-370-7300, mentioning course code 139227.
Did you know?
• Dr. Martha Gulati’s commitment to the study of women and cardiac diseases has earned her numerous accolades, including being named by Crain’s Chicago Business as one of Chicago’s “Top 40 under 40.” In 2011, she received the first CREDO (Coalition to Reduce Racial and Ethnic Disparities in Cardiovascular Outcomes) Award from the American College of Cardiology to honour her contributions to improve cardiovascular healthcare of women patients. In 2012, she received the National Red Dress Award for her efforts to raise awareness of heart disease in women and advancing research in this field. She is a member of numerous advisory boards and societies, including the American Heart Association, American College of Cardiology and American Society of Preventive Cardiology, and serves on the board of WomenHeart.