She’s All Heart: How One Detroit Cardiologist Helps Women Pursue Heart-Healthy Living

As a champion of healthy living, Dr. Deirdre Mattina doesn’t just talk the talk – you might say she also dances the dance. “I was a professional dancer before I went to medical school,” says the heart specialist. “I worked as a Radio City Rockette and traveled around the world, which helped me become a better doctor.”

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Dr. Mattina at the Henry Ford Women's Heart Center
Today, as founder and director of Henry Ford Women’s Heart Center, Mattina, and the Center’s staff, focus on teaching women about heart disease. Many people don’t know heart disease, which includes heart attack, stroke and heart failure, is the number one killer of U.S. women.

The Heart Center opened a year ago and it offers a free heart program for low-income women in Detroit. “Cardiovascular health in women was always my interest – prevention is my focus,” says Mattina. 

Roughly 90 percent of women over age 50 have at least one risk factor for heart problems, which include physical inactivity, being overweight, smoking, diabetes, high cholesterol and high blood pressure. “Women are underrepresented in research and minorities are even less represented. I’m interested in working with women of color to educate them. We can manage heart disease with a healthy lifestyle,” says Mattina.

Part of the issue is heart disease has been traditionally thought to be a man’s disease. “There are gaps in knowledge and we’ve just been applying principles to what happens to men,” she says.

The female heart

It’s not the differences in symptoms in men and women that should be the focus. Women can experience the same heart attack symptoms as men: chest pain, fatigue and shortness of breath. The real difference is how heart disease appears differently in men than in women. Men typically have coronary artery disease blockage, which can be treated with bypass surgery or by inserting a stent.

Women don’t have blockages in those big arteries but instead have blockages in tiny blood vessels. These are smaller branches of the vessels within the muscles. The small vessels are hard to see with today’s imaging technologies and you can’t bypass them like you might with larger blood vessels. The differences can make it a challenge to diagnose and treat heart disease in women.

In general, people are not great at describing their symptoms. Some say it’s not pain, it’s discomfort or squeezing. Some have “buzzing” in their shoulder with a major heart attack. Other symptoms may include heartburn, jaw pain or arm numbness. “Women seem to describe heart disease as fatigue and shortness of breath,” says Dr. Mattina. “Everyone has a different story to tell and people are different in how they tolerate and explain pain. The key is finding out how long it lasts and in what setting. Do you notice the silent symptoms? Do you feel chest pain only after you eat? When you exercise? At night?”

Limit your risks

Many women ignore the signs of heart disease. They’ll have chest pain they attribute to acid reflux, or shortness of breath. They keep going with their daily errands and the added stress of taking care of loved ones. It’s stress that affects women’s risk of heart disease the most.

“We can’t judge wellness by how someone looks – trim or fit,” says Mattina. “Many times, it’s genetic. Or age related. Heart disease usually presents itself after menopause once estrogen is no longer a protective factor.”

“Women can be surprised to hear they have high blood pressure. Even if you never had high blood pressure, you can get high blood pressure over 65 because arteries harden when we get older,” she says.

“The biggest thing we’ve ignored is we are an over-sugared nation. Extra sugar is stored as fat and increases your risk of diabetes,” she notes. What’s more, many women store fat in their abdomen and an apple-shape physique carries the biggest risk for heart disease.

Healthy living

“In the clinic, we’re trying to get women to look at food as medicine and exercise as medicine,” Dr. Mattina says. “We always try to minimize drugs.”

At the Center, clients meet with a physician, a nutritionist and a certified wellness practitioner who can point patients to community resources, like local yoga or cooking classes. The two-hour appointment includes a visit inside a futuristic-looking pod for body fat analysis. “We sit down and give women an exercise plan and a capacity goal they should strive for and how many times a week. These are tangible, realistic goals instead of just ‘lose 30 pounds.’ ” 

The number of people diagnosed with heart failure is increasing, and by 2030, it’s expected to rise by 46 percent.  The good news: 80 percent of cardiac and stroke episodes are preventable according to the American Heart Association.

How a top Detroit heart doc lives healthy

Dr. Deirdre Mattina admits she juggles a lot between work and family. With a husband and two kids, ages 7 and 4, she still finds a way to prioritize her health. “I have to schedule time to work out. I’ll take a moms’ class at my daughter’s dance studio and we do dance parties at night at our house.” Dr. Mattina also does Bikram yoga once a week and home exercise videos in her basement a couple times a week. She wears a Fitbit to track her 10,000-steps-a-day goal.

“I pay attention to my diet. I’m a pescetarian, eating fish but no other meat, and I have been for over 20 years.” She loves snacking on vegetables and fruit. “I never deny anyone coffee, chocolate or sex,” she quips. Everything is good in moderation, she says.

Dr. Mattina avoids telling people to diet “because when you hit a goal, you tend to stop. We’re trying to establish a healthy spectrum of habits for life.”

Categories: Get Healthy

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