Skip to Main Content

Seeing is Believing: Picturing Heart Damage

Coronary Disease Can Present Differently in Women

UMass Lowell Image
Prof. Kay Doyle points out plaque build up and ruptures in a model that shows the inside of a blood vessel.

By Karen Angelo

New research on heart disease shows that for many women, damage to blood vessels manifests differently than in men, which may be the cause of varying symptoms. In fact, many women don’t experience the most common sign of a heart attack – chest pain.

Prof. Kay Doyle of clinical laboratory and nutritional sciences will present "Women’s Cardiovascular Health – Risk Factors and Pathophysiology: Understanding How Disease Develops and Progresses" during Lowell Women’s Week on March 7 at the UMass Lowell Inn & Conference Center, 5:30 to 7 p.m. She will demonstrate through pictures and diagrams how risk factors such as smoking, diabetes, obesity and lack of exercise build up plaque and reduce muscle within blood vessels. 

An expert in laboratory medicine and a past fellow at Harvard Medical School and Massachusetts General Hospital in pathology, Doyle answers questions about how risk factors damage blood vessels in women and men. 

How does heart disease differ between men and women?

Heart disease is the number one killer of both women and men. 

While there are similarities, it’s important to understand how it can develop differently for women. For example, women experience symptoms 10 years later than men and many have a worse outcome after a heart attack. Studies show that for some women the obstruction occurs in small coronary blood vessels and plaques are more diffuse rather than obstructive. Though women can experience the typical chest pain or tingling sensation in their arms, new studies show that some women have heart attacks without these symptoms. Instead, they may experience shortness of breath, headaches, nausea, fatigue or stomach upset.

What are the risk factors for heart disease and what can we do about it? 

For some people with heart disease, risk factors such as family history may put them at an increased risk. But your genes are not necessarily your destiny. For other risk factors, such as cigarette smoking, diet, alcohol intake and physical activity, there is a lot we can do. Heart disease is highly preventable if we understand how these risk factors can damage our blood vessels and try to minimize the health risks. I think that visualizing what’s happening in our bodies as a result of certain behaviors can be a good motivator which is why I’m giving the talk during Lowell Women’s Week.

Often we hear about the dangers of fatty foods, stress, diabetes and smoking to our overall health but what is actually happening to our blood vessels?

While heart disease may develop over decades without any symptoms, there’s much going on inside. When we are stressed, our bodies increase adrenal hormones that constrict blood vessels, causing damage to the blood vessel inner wall. Diabetes causes lipids to rise and also results in an increase in proteins with glucose attached, which become embedded in blood vessel walls. Smoking decreases oxygen to tissues and damages blood vessel walls. The nicotine increases production of fat molecules, or lipids, in the blood, and also causes vasoconstriction, increasing blood pressure. An unhealthy diet increases lipids in the blood. LDL – known as the bad cholesterol – increases, resulting in oxidization and damage to blood vessels. HDL – the good cholesterol that carries cholesterol away from arteries and out of the body – decreases. And obesity makes the heart pump harder and is associated with diabetes and hypertension.

What is happening in our bodies when we exercise and eat healthy?

The difference is amazing. I’m sure you’ve heard it over and over again about eating your fruits and vegetables but this is why it’s so important. Besides all of the health benefits of the nutrients and fiber, fruits and vegetables contain antioxidants that prevent damage to endothelial cells and other body cells. Omega 3 fatty acids that are found in fish oils, walnuts and flaxseed, make a healthier version of biochemical products to control blood pressure and inflammation. Increasing physical activity results in an increased production of HDL levels and an increased production of compounds that trap free radicals that prevent damage to the blood vessel wall. It also reduces stress and decreases blood pressure and heart rate.