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Taking Care of Your Heart: Managing risk of cardiovascular disease

cardiovascular disease in women

At Stix, we know that cardiovascular health plays an important role in your quality of life and overall wellbeing. So, we’ve partnered with Dr. Nedda Dastmalchi, DO, MA, a physician and cardiology fellow at Temple University Hospital in Philadelphia, to get real about heart health in honor of Heart Month.

To start off our Taking Care of Your Heart series, we asked Dr. Dastmalchi a few questions about her background, what led her to study heart health, and what you can do to help decrease your risk of cardiovascular diseases.

Can you tell us a bit about yourself?

Dr. Dastmalchi: I grew up in Potomac, Maryland, a suburb outside of Washington, D.C. At Case Western Reserve University, I studied Medical Anthropology and ended up adding more courses my senior year to graduate with a dual Bachelor’s and Master’s degree. I then did a post-baccalaureate program at the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Disease and carried on to the Virginia College of Osteopathic Medicine in Blacksburg, VA for my medical school training.

For residency, I came back home to Washington, D.C. where I trained in internal medicine at George Washington University Hospital. When I am not at the hospital, I do enjoy traveling, creating plant-based dishes and desserts adapted from various cuisines, expanding my creative rest by going to the art museum and watching international films, medical journalism, and long walks in the city and trails.

What made you want to focus on heart health?

Dr. Dastmalchi: If I were asked ten years ago where I saw myself, I would not have expected that I would be writing to a community of strong, resilient women about how their gender plays an important role in their heart health.

Why I chose cardiology has always been a tough question for me to answer, however in my gut I knew it was the right fit. During my cardiology rotation in my third year of medical school, I was in awe of the trusting relationship my cardiology attending had with his patients. I wanted to emulate that relationship with patients in the future.

In addition, cardiovascular disease is not only a problem in the US but a contributor to death worldwide. My inherent attraction to diversity and learning about culture made me want to become an expert in a topic so that I could learn to communicate cross-culturally.

During my medical school training, I also realized that my interest in nutrition and the microbiome were important in cardiovascular disease, further validating that becoming a cardiologist was what I needed to be to feel fulfilled and make a larger impact in the community I treat.

Why should women care about heart health?

Dr. Dastmalchi: Gender and race play a large role in the risk of developing heart disease, but in the past research has typically underrepresented minorities in trials. Even with COVID-19 taking the limelight in our medical culture, cardiovascular disease is still the number one cause of death among women.

The American Heart Association finds that 1 in 3 women die of heart disease, and 45% of women 20 years and older are living with some form of heart disease, which is higher among Black women of the same age group. We are also learning that South Asians also have a higher rate of heart disease with some individuals having normal LDL cholesterol levels (aka the “bad” kind of cholesterol) while having severe coronary artery disease that requires surgery.

Some heart conditions are more common among women in comparison to men such as stress cardiomyopathy, also known as broken heart syndrome, sudden coronary artery dissection (SCAD), and myocardial infarction with no obstructive coronary artery disease (MINOCA).

Each of these syndromes, and their contributing factors, will be covered in depth during our Taking Care of Your Heart series.

What can women do to support their heart health?

There are many things you can do now to increase your heart health.

Understand your family history

Dr. Dastmalchi: Family history plays a larger role in our health overall than we give credit for. Ask your parents and siblings what medical ailments they are getting treatment for or have in the past. Learn your grandparent's history. It’s important to learn some hints or clues about your ancestry so you can better assess your risk of developing heart disease later on.

Monitor your heart health before, during, and after pregnancy

Dr. Dastmalchi: Your pregnancy does not end once you give birth! If you are diagnosed with a gestational hypertensive disorder (preeclampsia, hypertension, eclampsia), it may resolve after childbirth, but it has effects on your heart years later. If your doctor does not ask about the course of your pregnancy, or even if you have had children, tell them anyway. It is very important for your health care providers to know so they can closely follow up with routine labs or refer you to an appropriate cardiologist who focuses on preventing the development of early-onset heart disease.

Learn how to manage stress

Dr. Dastmalchi: As women, we usually take on a number of roles in society. We may have stressful careers, need to care for children, help manage a household, and more. As a result, we may put our own health on the back burner. The inability to find ways to process emotions and stress has been shown to increase your risk of developing heart disease. Finding an outlet like therapy, meditation, yoga, dance, or exercise can help you better manage stress and decrease the health burdens that come with it.

Evaluate your diet and nutrition

Dr. Dastmalchi: The diseases that drive the cost of healthcare in the U.S. are related to dietary habits. The standard American diet (ironically known as “SAD”) is full of refined sugars, highly processed vegetable oils, animal fats, and refined grains. Paired with sedentary lifestyles, less than optimal nutrition is a large factor contributing to the obesity epidemic our country is experiencing now.

Obesity and fat centered around the abdomen further causes inflammation, dysfunctional immune systems, and hormonal fluctuations. Proper nutrition can play a pivotal role in mental health and stress management. In cardiology, the first step in controlling cholesterol levels and blood pressure is through lifestyle, which includes your diet, exercise, and overall wellbeing. Eating plenty of vegetables, fruits, heart-healthy fats, and whole grains are great anti-inflammatory and antioxidant foods, while being mindful of your intake of processed foods, added sugar, and refined grains is recommended.

Advocate for yourself

Dr. Dastmalchi: With the four steps above, the number one takeaway is self-advocacy. Telling your doctor how you are feeling, sharing your past medical and pregnancy history with your physicians, learning your family background, and prioritizing yourself and your health are all elements of advocating for yourself. With self-advocacy, you can build self-confidence and mental clarity that will help you impact your health in a big and positive way.

Don’t miss a beat this Heart Month. Stay tuned for more heart health education throughout the month of February.

Need help? No question is too small. Say hi at hello@getstix.com.

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