Susan Lucci is the picture of health – she's slim, she exercises and she eats the heart-healthy Mediterranean diet. Her regular check-ups went well, routine EKGs showed no problems, and her blood pressure was on the lower end of normal. On the outside, she didn't seem to have any of the risk factors for cardiovascular disease. On the inside, though, a serious problem was lurking.
The arteries that led to the Hollywood starlet's heart were severely blocked. Left untreated, she would have likely had a massive heart attack.
Heart Disease is a Concern for Women Too
"I'm lucky to be alive," Lucci told People magazine. "As a woman you think about breast cancer, not a heart attack."
Lucci is right. Many people think of heart disease as a "man's disease." A Contributing Editor to Harvard Health Publishing, part of Harvard Medical School, says that women are often far more concerned about breast cancer than they are about heart disease, even though women have a greater risk of dying from heart disease than from all cancers combined. The truth is, heart disease kills about the same number of men and women in the United States, according to Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). About two-thirds of women who die suddenly from heart disease, also known as coronary disease, did not have symptoms.
Susan Lucci did have symptoms, although they were not the "clutch at her chest and fall to the floor" symptoms that she might have portrayed in a movie. She experienced shortness of breath and chest tightness in the fall of 2018. She told herself that it would go away, and it did.
But then it came back about 10 days later. It radiated around her ribcage. She thought perhaps her bra was too tight. She ignored it again and the tightness went away.
Then it came back a third time while she was shopping. "It felt like an elephant pressing down on my chest."
Fortunately, Lucci went to the emergency department. Doctors there performed computed tomography (CT) testing, which showed a 90 percent blockage in the heart's main artery and another 70 percent blockage in different area. These blockages were starving the heart of the oxygen-rich blood it needed to function. She underwent emergency surgery for the placement of two stents, which are medical devices that hold the blocked passageways open enough for blood to flow through the arteries.
Lucci also had an important risk factor that many of us overlook – a family history of heart disease. Her father had a type of heart disease known as atherosclerosis, a condition in which plaque builds up and narrows the arteries that deliver oxygen-rich blood to the heart and other organs. He ended up having a heart attack when he was in his 40s.
Many people are like Lucci in that they have only one risk factor for heart disease, so they think they have a low risk for heart disease. Even one risk factor, such as a family history, can significantly increase cardiovascular disease risk. The three main risk factors of heart disease are high blood pressure, high LDL blood cholesterol levels and tobacco smoking. About half of Americans have at least one of those three risk factors. Other risk factors include diabetes, being overweight or obese, poor diet, inactive lifestyle and excessive use of alcohol.
To reduce the risk of developing heart disease, it is important to know one's blood pressure, quit smoking, keep cholesterol at healthy levels and limit alcohol. Preventive screening tests are also available to help determine a person's risk for heart disease. One test, calcium scoring, is particularly helpful.
Calcium scoring, also known as cardiac calcium scoring or heart scan, is a non-invasive CT scan that creates an image of the heart. The test measures the amount of calcified plaque in the coronary arteries. Plaque is a waxy substance made of fat, cholesterol and calcium, which can accumulate slowly inside arteries. As it accumulates, plaque can harden (or calcify) and narrow or even close off an artery.
Calcium scoring measures the calcified plaque and provides a score from zero to over 400. A calcium score of zero means there is no plaque present and the person has a very low risk of heart attack. A score of 1 to 10 means very little plaque is present, 11 to 100 means some plaque is present and there is mild heart disease, and 101 to 400 means there is moderate plaque and moderate to high risk of a heart attack. A score over 400 means there is more than a 90 percent chance that calcium is blocking a main artery to the heart, and that the chances of a heart attack are very high.
Because of her recent health scare, Susan Lucci is now a national volunteer and spokesperson for the American Heart Association's Go Red for Women campaign. She uses this platform to share information about heart disease in women, and to encourage women to take action against heart disease.