Why we need a woman-centric approach to heart health, an interview with Dr. Leslie Anne Saxon

Dr. Leslie Anne Saxon is head of Cardiology at USC Keck School of Medicine and LIVESTRONG.COM's Chief Medical Advisor and host of LIVESTRONG.COM's new show, "Health Matters". I sat down with her to talk about the Women's Heart Center she is opening at USC, the importance of a woman-centric approach to heart health, and her first "Health Matters" show on Sudden Cardiac Death.

Krisserin Canary: What do you mean when you say a "woman-centric" approach to heart health?

Dr. Leslie Anne Saxon: There is no female-centric approach toward heart health. Heart disease is the No. 1 cause of death of women in America and 70 percent to 80 percent of all research conducted on heart disease has been done on men. All the data we have, all the tests we have, have all been developed for men.

Canary: Are men and women's chemistry so different that it could severely impact our care?

Dr. Saxon: There is just so much that goes into how a heart condition is treated in a woman. Heart health changes at every stage of a woman's life-childbearing years, pre-menopausal, menopausal and post-menopausal-and the hormones involved at each stage greatly affect a woman's chemistry. And when it comes to research on women's hearts, the data just isn't there. There is research now that states that aspirin, which has always been promoted as preventing heart attacks, might not work as effectively for women as for men.

Canary: How will your women's center differ from other heart centers around the country?

Dr. Saxon: We want to give women a 360-degree approach to their heart health. Heart disease affects women who want to have kids, women who are pre-menopausal and even young adults. Women need to have access not only to cardiologists, but to OB/GYN's and oncologists. They should know how their heart condition can affect their other health issues. It's been proven that one-third of women who visit their doctor are diagnosed with an anxiety disorder instead of with a heart condition. We want to create an academic environment where we can address women's heart health from every relevant perspective.

Canary: What do you think is the biggest issue when it comes to women's heart health?

Dr. Saxon
: There isn't enough awareness. You'd be surprised how often I'm seeing a male patient and will stop and ask their wives, "How are you? Have you had your heart checked?" It's just not something they think about.

Canary: Why aren't women thinking about their hearts?

Dr. Saxon: Because we're caretakers. We take care of their children, our husbands, our households and never stop to take care of ourselves. We need to be more aware of our stress, and diets and the importance of regular checkups. It's not selfish to think about your health; you need to put your health first.

Canary: What do you think is the most overlooked need that women have when it comes to their hearts?

Dr. Saxon: When heart disease presents in women, it presents in atypical ways and when it does occur it is often more aggressive. Seventy-five percent of women say their OB/GYN is their primary care physician and they just aren't equipped to do all the regular diagnostics that an internal medicine physician runs.

Canary: I was lucky enough to attend your body computing conference last summer at USC. What is Body Computing and why is it so important?

Dr. Saxon: Body computing is the use of implanted, digested or wearable networked technology that can transmit real-time physiological data. I have implanted hundreds of defibrillators and pacemakers in patients with various forms of heart disease, and have the ability to monitor their hearts remotely. I can tell if they go into atrial fibrillation, and what the conditions were that caused it. It's a whole new way to access health data and it's everything from a pacemaker, to devices that monitor the amount of calories you burn, or digestible devices to track the ingestion of medicine.

Canary: Is that why you became interested in working with LIVESTRONG.COM?

Dr. Saxon: I approached LIVESTRONG.COM, because I wanted to find a social network of people who were focused on their health, and I wanted to find a network that had grown organically. Much of what the LIVESTRONG.COM community is doing is exactly like what I experienced when I first became a doctor. In the hospital I worked in, we had these support group meetings and therapeutic sessions with patients that shared the same diseases. I was able to hear the patient's stories, hear about their anxieties and their fears.

Canary: Do you think that changed the way you thought about your patient?

Dr. Saxon: Absolutely. It was extremely impactful. And, now, those same people are going online to find that support. Right now, 75 percent of Americans go online for their health problems, and as a result social networks have become powerful players in patient education and outcome.

Canary: I read your article in the Huffington Post about a patient's rights to their health information. What is preventing patients having access to their health information?

Dr. Saxon: There are privacy concerns -and they are valid concerns -when it comes to having access to health records. But, we've bypassed those concerns in the past-they're using Blackberries in the White House, aren't they? Right now only 30 percent of patient records exist online, and many doctors have their own digital systems that they've created for their private practices. I think the main concern doctor's have is giving patient's access to their records, and the amount of fear that test results could cause in the patient. I can look at a CT Scan, and six out of 10 times I'll see something abnormal on the scan, but only one out of 100 cases warrants doing something.

Canary: Do doctors get annoyed that patients are looking up their symptoms online and printing things out to take to their check-ups?

Dr. Saxon: I'm sure they do, but you have to look at it this way: That is an attempt from a motivated patient to be informed. I want patients to ask me questions; I want to empower patients to be more active participants in their health. That's what having access to health records is all about. That's what we want to do with "Health Matters."

Canary: Your first show is on sudden cardiac death. Why is it an important topic?

Dr. Saxon: You hear about it all the time. A child faints while playing soccer or most recently the death of NFL player Gaines Adams. It's a controversial issue. Should parents who have active children get them tested and spend thousands of dollars on tests that they may not need? The survival rate of sudden cardiac death is a dismal 5 percent outside a hospital, and 400,000 people die every year. It's proven that if a victim can be defibrillated immediately you can save a life. What people don't know is that sudden cardiac death can be caused by many things and it's not just a heart attack and if affects people of all ages and all walks of life. We'll be talking about the different causes of Sudden Cardiac Death, the warning signs and when you should be checked for symptoms of heart disease.

Canary: Is there anything else you'd like to say about women's heart health that we didn't cover?

Dr. Saxon: Ultimately, women can only depend on themselves when it comes to protecting their hearts. We can't sit around and try to find out whose fault it is that women have been under recognized. We have to take responsibility for ourselves and our children. There are several precautions you can take to make sure you have a healthy heart. Monitor your stress and your diet and know if you are at risk. Remember, it's not selfish to take care of yourself. Your health has to come first.

Dr. Leslie Anne Saxon is LIVESTRONG.COM's Chief Medical Advisor and the host of "Health Matters." You can catch her first show on sudden cardiac death on LIVESTRONG.COM.

Krisserin Canary is the editor of LIVESTRONG.COM.

This interview with Dr. Saxon was originally published on LIVESTRONG.COM.

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