For years, heart disease was seen primarily as a man’s problem. But it’s very much a woman’s concern as well. According to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, heart disease is the leading cause of death for women in the U.S., accounting for one in every five female deaths. And until about 2013, more women than men were dying of heart disease.
Dr. Jane Lombard at El Camino Health has been aware of the problem for a while.
“It’s information we’ve known for about the last 20 to 30 years, but it hasn’t been disseminated,” Lombard said last week.
Thanks to cardiologists like Lombard, that’s changing. The founder and medical director of the Women’s Heart Center at El Camino Health sees increased education and awareness in recent years – and an uptick in research.
Lombard is among a group of medical experts scheduled to speak at El Camino Health’s 11th annual Heart Forum Saturday. Hosted by the Norma Melchor Heart and Vascular Institute, the Heart Forum is an educational event featuring presentations and interactive discussions with prominent physicians. The forum, according to El Camino Health officials, has served to educate the community on the signs, treatments and prevention of heart and vascular disease.
Lombard will look to spread the word at the forum about the importance of further addressing women’s heart issues. She is known for her holistic approach to care, following the philosophy: treat the patient, not the disease.
In addition to atherosclerotic cardiovascular disease, Lombard plans to touch on cardio-obstetrics. She pointed out that the U.S. has some of the highest maternal mortality rates in the world.
“This is disgraceful, right? We are a rich country. We don’t take care of our moms,” she said.
She’ll also speak on the emerging field of cardio-oncology, and how cancer patients are developing heart complications from chemotherapy.
Underdiagnosed and undertreated
The problem with the slow response to women’s heart health, she said, was the prevailing attitude, even among doctors, that heart disease was a man’s disease. As a result, research was not robust and data for women was undercollected.
“If you don’t keep records and if you don’t look, you won’t know,” she said.
The bias has its roots in the 1930s and 1940s, when complications from pregnancy were “a huge killer for women,” said Lombard, a cardiologist for more than 40 years. “But as we transition into the modern era, and we don’t die from bleeding or infections, (we die from) chronic disease, hypertension, diabetes, hyperlipidemia and cholesterol. Even when I was in medical school in the 1980s, the risk factor for heart disease included being male. We didn’t look at (women) – and that was in the ’80s.”
Researchers began tracking female heart disease as more women entered the workforce.
“So (researchers) saw that women are living longer and they’re dying from heart disease,” Lombard said. “And the death rate for women increased – there was a line they crossed over – women were dying more frequently from heart disease than men, so the government said, ‘This is a problem; we’re not doing something right.’ We weren’t looking (at female heart disease). Because people were not aware of it, women were underdiagnosed and undertreated.”
The patients, as well, are often slow to catch on, Lombard said.
“I’ve seen shortness of breath, a lot of excessive sweating, a lot of nausea,” she said. “A lot of patients don’t realize they’re at risk, so they don’t seek medical attention.”
She’s pleased by the increase in data collection and research, as well as public awareness, in recent years, and that more treatments are tailored specifically to women. But there’s more work to be done.
Lombard, who ran an unsuccessful campaign for the El Camino Healthcare District Board of Directors last November, said her ongoing campaign is “educating the public – and the doctors” about women’s heart disease.
Her overarching message: “We need to take better care of our women and our moms.”
The Heart Forum is free, but registration is required.
To register and for more information, visit heartforum.elcaminohealth.org.