GW Medical Experts Lead Effort to Improve Heart Health

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Three SMHS faculty members sitting at a table as an event panel

Friends of the George Washington (GW) University gathered at the Jack Morton Auditorium for a discussion about women’s heart health led by a panel of experts from the GW School of Medicine and Health Sciences (SMHS) and the GW Medical Faculty Associates (MFA). The event, titled “Heart Healthy Women: Improving Cardiovascular Health Through Innovation, Early Detection, and Lifestyle Modification,” was part of the continuing SMHS lecture series, Frontiers in Medicine.

The series, moderated by Alan Wasserman, M.D., M.A.C.P., Eugene Meyer Professor of Medicine and chair, Department of Medicine at SMHS, and president of the MFA, connects members of the Washington, D.C. community with renowned medical experts to explore current health care topics. Panelists for the March 13 event included Jannet F. Lewis M.D., director of the Women’s Heart Center at the GW Heart and Vascular Institute, director of non-invasive cardiology at the MFA, and professor of medicine at SMHS; Richard Katz, M.D., Bloedorn Professor of Cardiology at SMHS and director of the GW Heart and Vascular Institute; Rich Neville, M.D., F.A.C.S, professor surgery at SMHS and co-director of the GW Heart and Vascular Institute; and Kelli Metzger, M.S., R.D., dietitian at the MFA.

Leading off the evening, Lewis drew attention to a little known the fact; heart disease kills more women annually than breast and lung cancer combined. Although just 13 percent of women consider heart disease poses a threat to their health, according to the National Heart Association, heart disease is the leading cause of death among women in the United States, and 8.6 million women around the world die from cardiovascular disease each year. The key, said Lewis, is knowing your risk factors such as high blood pressure and high cholesterol, smoking, obesity, and diabetes, and seeking treatment if you experience symptoms. It’s why Daniel Perch, a retired federal government employee, brought his fiancé Rita to the discussion. “I wanted to make sure she has the information and resources necessary to make the appropriate modifications in her lifestyle,” said Perch. “I think it’s important for her to know her risk factors.”

“The most common symptom is pain and pressure in the chest,” Lewis told the audience. The problem, she added, is that men and women respond that pain differently. For example, if a 50-year-old man working on Capitol Hall is experiencing chest pain, “he immediately stops what he is doing and goes to GW to see his doctor. A woman, on the other hand, is more likely to wait it out, tolerate the pain, and maybe take an over-the-counter drug.” Those extra minutes, Lewis said, “increase a woman’s risk of dying from a heart attack.”

Building upon Lewis’s remarks, Metzger discussed how a women’s waistline affects her risk of developing heart disease. “The most important thing to remember when dieting and exercising is reducing your portion size,” she said. Eating right and exercising daily are equally important for women, especially as they age.

“I’m a vascular person,” Neville followed, turning the audience’s attention to matters of peripheral arterial disease — the narrowing or blockage of the peripheral arteries, most commonly those in the pelvis and legs. “I deal with everything outside of the heart,” he explained. Women’s heart health is of great importance to Neville because cardiovascular disease in women is under diagnosed, undertreated, and understudied. Neville stressed the fact that the disease is different in men and women and should be treated differently.

Rounding out the lecture, Katz addressed the greatest challenge that individuals face when taking care of their heart health — behavior modification. He suggested using technology to get engaged with one’s heart health. For Katz, taking advantage of integrative mobile health systems is better for the patient and health care provider. “Using mobile applications, like mHealth, can track a patient’s health care goals, improve adherence to evidence-based guidelines, and improve patient understanding of the impact of behaviors on disease prevention and control,” said Katz.

In closing, the panelists reiterated that taking control of a person’s heart health starts with being proactive about every aspect of one’s overall wellbeing. 

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