How Heart Disease Can Strike Young Mothers

Feb 28, 2020

Most people think of heart disease as something that only happens in old age. That’s not always the case. But younger people may not recognize symptoms of a cardiac emergency because they don’t think it could happen to them.

“I had no clue what was going on because I have never been sick before,” Elizabeth Corley recalls. “I'm always very healthy. So to think I was having a heart attack like would have never crossed my mind.”

Corley’s heart attack hit less than two weeks after she gave birth to her third child, Katherine. It was a rare type called a spontaneous coronary artery dissection.

At 36, Corley didn’t consider a heart attack a possibility. She had chest pain and pain in her left arm but didn’t think it was serious.

“I just kind of brushed that off,” she says. Had she been home alone, she admitted she probably wouldn’t have gone to the hospital.

Her husband insisted on calling 911, and Corley was rushed to the ER.

She was stunned when doctors told her what was wrong. “I was like, ‘Oh my gosh, what are you talking about, open heart surgery?’ and they're like, 'Yes!' I just could not believe it. You know, I've never heard of a spontaneous coronary artery dissection."

Corley spoke recently about her experience at the Prairie Heart Institute in Carbondale, Ill., where she was initially treated.

Dr. Cesar Coello of the institute says this type of heart problem often hits young mothers. "After the pregnancy and delivery seems to be a time when these things happen more often. And we don’t understand exactly the reason that the lining of the arteries suddenly detach or tear."

Ignoring symptoms of heart disease is common with younger patients, says Dr. Raeed Al-Dallow of the institute.

“The popular belief is heart disease is something that affects older people,” he said. “There is a lot of truth to that. Now, being young does not protect us from heart disease at all.”

Up to 10 percent of all heart attacks occur in patients younger than 45. Cardiac issues can be triggered by diseases like lupus and rheumatoid arthritis. or by radiation and chemotherapy treatments for childhood cancer. And the federal government estimates that 1.4 million adults are living with congenital heart disease.

Al-Dallow says younger people, like Corley, often assume symptoms are related to something else and don’t get them checked out.

"Discomfort in the chest. This often in younger individuals is interpreted as GI symptoms. So, I have acid reflux, so you know, how can I tell those should not be ignored?" Al-Dallow says, as an example.

For Al-Dallow, education is critical in making sure younger people take cardiac symptoms seriously. He says anyone worried about how they’re feeling can ask their doctor to be tested to rule out heart issues.

"In general, echocardiograms and treadmill stress echocardiograms are considered benign tests because they are based on ultrasound, they do not involve any radiation, they are not invasive,"  he says. "And they are reasonable things to ask for.”

Most importantly, Al-Dallow says young people should never assume they’re safe from heart disease. That’s partly why Corley decided to share her story recently. She wanted to help other women who might be tempted to brush off symptoms because they’re busy caring for a new baby.

“If you have any kind of shortness of breath or pain in your chest or your left arm or down your neck, you know, go get checked out, because it could very well be. I never would have thought this would have happened to me and it did,” she says.

More information on heart disease can be found at the American Heart Association’s website.

This story was produced by Side Effects Public Media, a news collaborative covering public health.