Launched in 2007, the Elizabeth Anne and Karen Barlow Corrigan Women’s Heart Health Program at Massachusetts General Hospital provides a unique clinical service — cardiac care designed specifically for women, from preventive approaches to complex conditions. In a short time, the program, co-directed by Malissa Wood, MD, and Nandita Scott, MD, has made a name for itself for its expertise in diagnosing and treating female patients.
Cardiovascular disease is the leading cause of death among women, causing more annual deaths than cancer, accidents, Alzheimer’s and respiratory diseases combined. Despite great progress in reducing the overall burden of cardiovascular disease, improvement among women, especially young women, has lagged behind men.
In an effort to focus on younger women, the Mass General program has devoted attention to the relationship between pregnancy and heart disease. Recent data suggests that heart disease is the number one non-obstetric cause of death during pregnancy. Risk factors such as obesity, hypertension and diabetes increase the risk of cardiac complications during pregnancy. And as maternal age advances, pre-existing heart conditions are more likely. Moreover, because of advances in medicine, patients with childhood congenital heart conditions are surviving to reproductive age.
By working with the Vincent Department of Obstetrics and Gynecology at Mass General, the Corrigan Women’s Heart Health Program has developed a formal collaboration to help recognize and address cardiac disorders during pregnancy. Its team approach includes regular scheduled discussions between obstetric anesthesiologists, high-risk obstetricians, interventional cardiologists, cardiologists and fellows.
Reducing the Risk of Cardiovascular Disease in Women
“Pregnancy is a time when a woman’s body is exposed to dramatic changes in the cardiovascular system that can be considered a type of stress test,” Dr. Scott says. “Pregnancy can unmask pre-existing heart conditions as well as cause certain heart conditions that can be unique to pregnancy.”
To reduce the risk of future cardiovascular disease and make subsequent pregnancies healthier, Dr. Wood is spearheading a healthy eating and exercise program that focuses on young mothers who have significant cardiac risk factors such as obesity, hypertension or diabetes. The program builds on the success of HAPPY (Heart Awareness Primary Prevention in Your Neighborhood) Heart program, which improves heart health in low-income women ages 40 to 60 through group education, peer support, health coaches and participation in mind-body therapies.
HAPPY Heart II will use a similar patient education approach for post-partum women. This new program will also incorporate smartphone and social media-based technology to help motivate the women and provide a virtual sense of community within the group.
“There is abundant evidence that the health of a young mother has a long-term impact on the health of her young child and potentially future unborn children,” Dr. Wood says. “By improving the health of the mother, we hope to reduce pediatric obesity and improve the overall health of the family.”