It’s Never Too Late to Listen to Your Heart

by Elizabeth Jackson, MD

One thing I have learned over the years, in both my personal and professional life, is that it’s never too late to make a positive change.
My life plan did not initially include becoming a cardiologist. Though I found science interesting in high school and college, it wasn’t my favorite subject. In fact, I majored in art and art history! While considering art conservation as a possible career, I discovered that one needed a basic understanding of chemistry, which I found intriguing. This interest, coupled with a strong desire to help others, led me to start working in a cardiologist’s office. The nurses, technicians, doctors, and patients at that office opened up a whole new world for me. The more I learned about the heart, the more I wanted to know.
Before I knew it, I had a job performing electrocardiograms in a Boston hospital and was taking premedical courses at night. It took five long years of working during the day and going to school in the evenings, but I finally achieved my dream of attending medical school. Along the way, my interest in cardiology continued to grow. Now, as a cardiologist at one of the most-respected medical facilities in the country, I find that my initial awe at the way our hearts function has not waned.
Each day, I continue to learn more and gain new appreciation for this amazing organ system. I understand that life can take you in many directions. Like my career path, your journey toward heart health may not be easy or straightforward; it may be filled with detours and setbacks. However, as long as you continue forward, making positive changes—no matter how small—you can improve your health.
We have learned that heart disease often affects women differently from men. And yet, there are more similarities than differences. Family history, high cholesterol, high blood pressure, diabetes, smoking, and lifestyle issues are the risk factors associated with heart disease for men and women. In both cases, prevention is the best treatment! When it comes to heart disease, changing your lifestyle can save your life. Although awareness regarding women and heart disease has increased (e.g., the Red Dress Campaign) and information is more readily available than ever before, we still have a long way to go. As they say, knowledge is power; if you understand how the heart works, what keeps it functioning properly, how to avoid risk factors, and what warning signs and symptoms to look for, you can save your life—or the life of a loved one.
That’s powerful stuff.
If women are truly the heart of the home, and I believe in many cases they are, you can make a huge difference in your family’s health. Despite societal changes, women are, for the most part, still primarily responsible for grocery shopping and meal preparation. We are typically the ones who make doctor’s appointments, urge spouses and children to get medical treatment, and care for elderly parents. As mothers, the decisions we make every day can go a long way toward instilling heart-healthy habits in our children—habits that will serve them well for life. By becoming better educated on heart disease, you can have a positive impact on the people in your life.
While we often do a great job caring for our families and others, women tend to ignore their own health issues. Every day, I see patients with cardiovascular concerns, from the routine to the life-threatening. I typically spend more time talking to my patients than actually examining them. I find that listening to people gives me a more complete picture of their health—and what a patient tells me can be just as enlightening as an EKG. During these conversations, I have found that women have a tendency to focus more on others and, as a result, put off seeing a physician about their own health until things become serious. They are often able to recite their spouse’s cholesterol level or blood pressure more readily than their own.
I want that to change.
I want you to take care of yourself, and know your numbers—cholesterol, blood pressure, sugar—and what those numbers mean. I want you to understand your risk factors and what to do about them. I want you to be aware of the early warning signs of a heart attack and not wait until it’s too late to be treated. I want you to be a role model for your family and friends. If I could, I would sit down and talk to every woman in the world about the importance of heart health, but since that’s impossible, this post is the next best thing.
So, no matter where you are in your journey—younger or older, healthy or ailing—I hope you’ll take a moment to really listen to your heart.
ELIZABETH JACKSON, MD, MPH
Elizabeth A. Jackson, MD, MPH, began work at the University of Michigan Health Center in 2007. She works as an attending cardiologist with an emphasis in women’s cardiovascular health and cardiovascular prevention. Dr. Jackson is board certified in Internal Medicine and Cardiovascular Disease and is a fellow of the American College of Cardiology.

You can learn more about her book: An Ageless Woman’s Guide to Heart Health. Come hear Dr. Jackson speak and have your book signed on April 7th at Elevate Ann Arbor, Marriott Ypsilanti.

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