Trusting your heart

Woman in sweater smiles big with hands over heart.

When you have heart disease, trusting your body again can be a big challenge.

About 44 million U.S. women have heart disease, and one of them dies of it every 80 seconds. Yet studies show that women are still underdiagnosed and undertreated. Women recovering from a heart attack or stroke are more likely to need to return to the hospital, less likely to get support, and much more likely to recover poorly compared to men.

On top of that, studies have shown that women seek help later and often put their own care on the back burner while trying to take care of their families.

Women need to take care of themselves and their heart. For survivors of a heart attack or stroke, learning to trust their heart again can be an overwhelming challenge.

Dr. Nandita Gupta is the Medical Director of Cardiovascular Services at OHSU Health Hillsboro, and sees cardiac patients at the OHSU Center for Women’s Health. We talked to her about three ways this challenge affects women, and what they can do to overcome it.

  1. How far should I push my body?

Exercise and an active lifestyle are an important part of improving your heart health. But many survivors fear pushing their heart too far. This is why cardiac rehab (a doctor-supervised exercise and education program tailored to you) is such an important resource.

“Cardiac rehab is a safe space to push your body and find your limits while being closely monitored,” says Dr. Gupta.

  1. What if it happens again?

This worry is very normal. But it can cause a lot of stress and anxiety, which isn’t good for your mental health or your heart.

Reducing your risk can make a big difference. Check out the American Heart Association’s resource on seven lifestyle changes to do just that.

Seeking social support can also really help. Along with the OHSU Knight Cardiovascular Institute, we host Mended Hearts, the only woman-centered cardiac survivorship group in the area.

"The program is based on peer-to-peer support," says Dr. Gupta. "Women can connect with others who have had a similar event, share their concerns and support each other."

  1. How do I know I’m doing it right?

Trusting your body takes first trusting yourself – that you understand your condition, what you need to do to improve, and what symptoms might indicate a problem. To get there, you have to be your own health advocate.

“Ask questions and keep asking if there is anything you don’t understand clearly,” Dr. Gupta says. “Ask why over and over to get to the root of what your doctor tells you. Make sure you’re getting educational resources that are actionable, reliable, and make sense to you.”