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Heart disease still No. 1



Billie-Marie Morrison has suffered from asthma almost her entire life. So in the fall of 2008, when she began feeing sick and run down, Morrison, an attorney at Craig P. Kenny & Associates, blamed her asthma.

She ignored the problems as much as she could until her friends finally pushed her to see a doctor, who diagnosed her with pneumonia. Morrison, who had suffered from pneumonia a few times in the past, took her medication dutifully. Yet, 10 days later, she was feeling worse than ever.

She went back to the clinic and was told she had bronchitis. The doctor also told her she needed to see a cardiologist immediately, as she was suffering from a very serious heart problem. What the cardiologist told Morrison is something that most would see as a nightmare.

“With tears in his eyes, my cardiologist told me that I may need a heart transplant. My doctor couldn’t believe I was still alive based on the results of my testing,” Morrison recalls.

She cried, as did her doctor. She then headed to Sunrise Hospital to be admitted. There, she finally learned the name of her disease: Cardiomyopathy, a weakening of the heart muscle often associated with inadequate pumping to the heart. In addition, she was diagnosed with a myriad of other ailments relating to the heart. After discussing her options with several doctors, Morrison decided not to undergo surgery until she had tried medication. Unfortunately, she found herself passing out at random, so she began the process of getting approval for heart surgery.

In the meantime, she was fitted for a Life Vest, a portable EKG machine and defibrillator that you wear underneath your clothes. She wore the vest, which required her to buy new, larger bras, for about four weeks until she had her surgery. On June 12, 2009, Morrison returned to Sunrise to undergo surgery to have a device implanted on her left chest to control her heart. She would be the first person in the state of Nevada to have the 3-lead, bi-v AICD implanted.

“I have never been so scared in my life,” she says of the surgery.

Morrison’s surgery was a success, and that, coupled with medication and lifestyle changes, has allowed her to continue living. She has gone on to become a spokeswoman for WomenHeart in conjunction with the Mayo Clinic, as well as host her own radio show, Double Take: The Heart of the Matter, to get the word out about understanding health issues.

But not all stories turn out like Morrison’s. More than one-quarter of the 1.2 million American women who die each year are victims of heart disease, making it the leading killer of females in the U.S. Heart disease is a broad term for a variety of diseases affecting the heart. Coronary heart disease occurs when the blood vessels supplying blood and oxygen to the heart narrow, while a heart attack occurs when there is not enough oxygen going to the heart due to blocked blood vessels.

Heart disease is generally thought of as a man’s disease, says Dr. Pam Ivy, a cardiologist at Sunrise Hospital, but it’s kind of misperceived by the general population, because women, especially post-menopausal women, have as great a risk as a man to get the disease. In fact, according to WomenHeart, more women than men die of heart disease each year, with 23 percent of women and 18 percent of men dying within the first year of a recognized heart attack. Within five years of a heart attack, 22 to 32 percent of women and 15 to 27 percent of men will die.

“Women don’t perceive themselves as at risk, because most women just think of cancer, like breast cancer,” Ivy says.

It’s thought that the estrogen pre-menopausal women produce somehow offers a protective benefit through maintaining a high level of HDL, considered the good cholesterol, Ivy says.

“Following menopause, the levels of HDL tend to drop, and it’s thought that that drop may be one of the things that play a role in a woman’s increasing risk of heart disease,” she adds.

In addition, post-menopausal women sometimes become less active and gain weight, which can lead to diabetes and high cholesterol and blood pressure, all risk factors for heart disease. Ivy says the typical symptom both men and women feel is chest discomfort.

“However,” Ivy says, “sometimes women don’t experience those typical symptoms. and instead, what they feel are fatigue or shortness of breath or neck or back pain. And again, they may tell their physicians about the sort of symptoms, but they’re not paying attention because the symptoms are not always typical in the description of the textbooks of how people with coronary disease present.”

Treatment for heart disease includes medication, surgical therapies and implanting devices. Morrison, who advocates and educates women about heart disease, says every woman should their baseline; they should get an EKG and ultrasound of their heart around the age of 40, similar to when women begin getting mammograms.

“Everyone does every body part but the heart, which is the most important,” she says.

After heart disease, the other leading killers of women in the United States are cancer, stroke, chronic obstructive pulmonary disease and Alzheimer’s disease. Here is what you need to know to stay healthy and minimize your chances of developing these conditions.


Cancer, when abnormal cells grow out of control, is the second leading cause of death among women. In 2006, the most recent year for which statistics are available, more than 660,000 women in the United States learned they had cancer. Almost 270,000 died from it, according to the Centers for Disease Control. Lung cancer is the most deadly type of cancer for women in the United States, and almost four out of every five cases of women with lung cancer in the U.S. are caused by smoking. Aside from lung cancer, smoking can cause many other cancers like throat, kidney and mouth.

Although it is the second leading cause of cancer death among women in the United States, breast cancer is the most common form of cancer in females in the country. Mammograms are the best way to detect and treat the cancer early on. Some forms of cancer are have genetic causes. To prevent different forms of cancer, people should stop smoking and try to minimize exposure to ultraviolet rays, which can cause skin cancer.

There are a few treatment options for cancer: surgery to remove the tumor, chemotherapy to kill the cancer cells and radiation to kill or shrink the cells.


Approximately 425,000 women die each year from stroke, 55,000 more than men, according to the National Stroke Association. Minority women are especially vulnerable. African-American women, according to the National Stroke Association, are far more likely than Caucasian women to suffer a stroke, and it is the leading cause of death for Hispanic females.

There are two types of strokes: ischemic, which accounts for 85 percent of all strokes, and hemorrhagic. In an ischemic stroke, blood supply to part of the brain is cut off, usually by a blood clot, leading to brain dysfunction. A hemorrhagic stroke, the more deadly of the two, involves a blood vessel in the brain rupturing and bleeding into the brain, which damages the brain cells. Within hours of a stroke, doctors can give patients the clot-reducing drug tissue plasminogen activator before later trying to remove the clot.

Risk factors for strokes can be divided into modifiable, or things people can change, and unmodifiable — things people can’t change. Modifiable risk factors include high blood pressure, high cholesterol, diabetes, tobacco use and obesity. Another controllable risk factor affecting about 15 percent of stroke patients is atrial filbrillation, also known as an irregular heartbeat. Most Americans over the age of 40 are at risk for atrial fibrillation, but it can be treated. Uncontrollable risk factors include age, gender, race, family history, previous stroke, a hole in the heart or arteries that fail to develop properly.

The National Stroke Association has developed an acronym, FAST, to help people determine whether a stroke has occurred. Check the following factors:

* Face: When the person smiles, does half of the face droop?

* Arm: When both arms are raised, does one drop down?

* Speech: When repeating a phrase, are the words slurred? Are the sentences repeated correctly?

* Time: Every second brain cells die. Call 911 immediately.


Emphysema and bronchitis are the major types of chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, or COPD, the fourth leading cause of death for females. A common symptom is coughing, sometimes called “smoker’s cough,” says Lisa Chase, the lung health educator at the Las Vegas chapter of the American Lung Association. Many people typically have constant episodes of shortness of breath, as well as excess mucus, but there are varying levels, Chase notes.

“Some people just feel like they can’t breathe or catch a breath.”Smoking is the leading cause of chronic obstructive pulmonary diseases.”The majority — but not all — of cases are from current or past smokers,” Chase says, adding that second-hand smoking and air pollution can also lead to COPD.

The CDC attributes the increase in women smokers, relative to men, over the last 70 years or so as the reason for the increase in COPD cases and deaths among women during 1980 to 2000. During that time, the death rate for women with COPD rose from 20.1 deaths per 100,000 women to 56.7 deaths per 100,000 women. The rate for men, on the other hand, also grew, but far less significantly: from 73.0 deaths per 100,000 men to 82.6 deaths per 100,000 men.

Chase says people in low-income communities and African-Americans tend to be diagnosed more than others, and the number of women afflicted with the disease is on the rise. But there are still between 12 and 24 million people who go undiagnosed, Chase says, partly because people choose to simply ignore the symptoms or think they are symptoms of another disease. The best thing to do if someone experiences any of the symptoms, she says, is to head to the doctor’s office.

“It could be nothing. It could be something else, but you’ll only know if you check it out,” Chase says.

If diagnosed with COPD, a doctor will usually prescribe medication and lifestyle changes. Although you will have to live with the disease for the rest of your life, it is manageable, Chase says. “I tell people it’s like diabetes,” she adds. “You can manage it…but that takes active participation with your care.”Here in Las Vegas, the American Lung Association offers Better Breathers Clubs, where people can learn ways to better cope with COPD while getting support from others. There are two club locations in Las Vegas: Breathing Center of Nevada at 501 S. Ranchero Dr., Suite A3, and Good Shepherd Rehab at 4275 Burnham Ave., Ste 225.


Alzheimer’s disease, a progressive brain disease where healthy tissue degenerates causing memory loss, accounts for 4 percent of all deaths among U.S. women each year. Researchers in Boston University discovered that more women are at risk for developing Alzheimer’s than men. The study showed that one in six women and one in 10 men are at risk for developing the neurological disease.

Another study showed that gender played a role in how the disease presents itself. A 2008 study showed that females had more trouble with naming and word-recognition skills, while men tend to have problems with wandering, abusiveness and social impropriety, especially in the advanced stages. As the most common form of dementia, there are several warning signs of the disease, according to the Alzheimer’s Association: memory loss disrupting daily life; difficulty completing familiar tasks at home, work or at leisure; and problems with speaking or writing, are just a few. The cause of the disease is not totally understood, but experts believe two abnormalities — a buildup between brain cells, called plaques, and tangles, knots of nerve cell fibers in the brain — play a major role. Because the cause is not fully understood, there is no way to fully prevent the disease. The U.S. Food and Drug Administration has approved the drugs Cholinesterase inhibitors and Memantine to treat the cognitive problems stemming from Alzheimer’s.

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