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Woman speaks out about heart health after she missed signs of heart attack

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Heart disease is the second leading cause of death for both men and women in Canada, but data from the Heart & Stroke Foundation shows women are actually at a greater risk.

Jan Coburn was by all accounts healthy, in good weight, very active, and just 59 years old when she had a heart attack in 2019.

“I had a spontaneous coronary artery dissection,” she said.

It’s commonly known as SCAD and 90 per cent of cases are women mostly between 30 and 60-years-old.

The Heart & Stroke Foundation says half of women who experience a heart attack have their symptoms go unrecognized – a statistic that Jan falls into.

“I woke up feeling nauseous, I was sweating, but I’m in menopause so that was normal. I justified all of my symptoms,” she said. “[…] The nauseous I just thought that I ate something that didn’t agree with me, I’m over tired, I did have a sharp pain in my chest, but that probably was from lifting furniture, right? I didn’t have the typical symptoms – the pain in the arm, the out of breath, none of that, so it never crossed my mind that I was having a heart attack.”

Jan spent that weekend helping her son move and it wasn’t until she woke up to drive home that she felt off.

Her son is a paramedic and he recognized the signs and drove her to the hospital.

“It was my son that saved my life. It was good timing – right place, right time,” she said. “My experience was actually a total surprise because I thought I was in perfect health. I had no high cholesterol, a little bit of high blood pressure, but it was 100 per cent under control, nothing to make me think that I was about to have a heart attack. I was actually jogging five-10 kilometres a day, at least four-five times a week.”

Her story has a happy ending, but research from Heart & Stroke states heart disease and stroke is the number one cause of premature death in women in Canada.

“Overall, heart disease was decreasing until maybe within the past decade, but starting the statistics about 2018, things have turned around and women, younger women in particular, seem to be more at risk from having cardiovascular events that are fatal,” said Dr. Sharon Mulvagh, a Dalhousie University professor of medicine and a co-director for the Women’s Heart Health Clinic in Halifax. “The real problem is that heart disease is an equal opportunity killer and we don’t think of that. We think of women not getting heart attacks and men getting heart attacks.”

Diving into why this might be, Mulvagh says it’s multifaceted, including the fact many women just don’t think about their cardiovascular risk factors and women face risks men don’t have.

“There are cardiovascular risks with pregnancy,” she said. “For example, women that have had preeclampsia or gestational diabetes, also pre-term births, they all are associated with an increased risk later on in life of the development of cardiovascular l disease both heart attacks and strokes.”

She says women can experience more subtle symptoms like discomfort, shortness of breath and light headedness that isn’t always immediately connected to heart disease and they can present with different types of heart attacks that can be harder to diagnosis.

Additionally, she says family history and other health conditions like high blood pressure, obesity and high cholesterol can all play a role.

“Health-care providers must be attuned to the fact that younger women can get heart attacks and that chest symptoms may not always be expressed as chest pain,” she said. “It could be discomfort, but it could also be those other associated symptoms like discomfort in the upper back, in the arms, even in the stomach and there can be other associated findings such as shortness of breath, palpitations or even profound fatigue.”

First and foremost, Mulvagh points out women are the best judge of what’s going on with their bodies and they need to be checked out if something feels wrong.

“They need to have an electro cardiogram done within 10 minutes and have the blood test done, the troponin level done, within the same prompt fashion,” she said. “Those two tests need to be done. It’s harder to diagnose in women, so it can’t just be, ‘Oh, it’s fine and call your doctor tomorrow.’”

Jan says one of her biggest takeaways from her experience was how to advocate for herself and it’s what she encourages all other women to do now.

“Ladies, if you’re in doubt, make sure you get them to test your troponin levels. That is the key. They may just say you’re having an anxiety attack. If you have doubts, you ask them what you need and that troponin test tells a long story,” she said. “Her Heart Matters. We’ve got to keep that in mind and we have to think of ourselves. We’re no good to anybody if we’re not there.”

On Feb. 13, a nationwide campaign is taking place that encourages Canadians to wear red for Her Heart Matters.

The goal is to bring awareness to cardiovascular risk factors specific to women and it will also have big focus on prevention.

In the Maritimes, there is an in-person event happening in Halifax, but there is also an online webinar that will touch on important topics, data and preventative measures.

Mulvagh says the hope is to reach specific populations including younger women, women of colour and Indigenous women.

“We really need to get the message to our younger colleagues and our racialized communities, that’s so important,” she said. “It’s really an opportunity to share more information and this is reliable information.”

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