The Star-Herald

Experts at Presque Isle event tell women they need to take better care of themselves

PRESQUE ISLE, Maine — As more women today balance professional work with taking care of children and aging parents, it becomes much easier for them to ignore their own physical and emotional well-being and run into some serious health issues, according to presenters at The Aroostook Medical Center’s County Women’s Health Conference this past Saturday. 

“Women and men deal with stress a lot differently,” said Ralph McPherson, a licensed clinical social worker for Beacon Health. “Women internalize stress while men tend to isolate themselves from how they’re feeling.”

Much of the stress women internalize comes from them being part of what McPherson calls the “sandwich generation,” women who take care of their immediate families while they also provide care for elderly parents. When combined with financial worries, the energy required to raise children and household duties, untreated stress can lead to impulsive behaviors and decisions as well as depression and anxiety.

Women who deal with extreme levels of stress also are less likely to see their healthcare provider on a regular basis, McPherson noted. The first steps toward stress management for many women are acknowledging the negative effects it has had on their lives and taking time for increased physical activity, sleep, socialization with friends and reflecting on their own needs and wants.

“I guarantee that most of you in this room would drop whatever you were doing if someone you knew called you and said they needed help. Yet, many of us don’t do that for ourselves. We don’t think we’re important enough,” McPherson said to the more than 40 women who attended the health conference. “But when you take steps to take care of yourself, it becomes easier to care for the other people in your life. You have to remember that you are important.”

Amanda Rautenberg, physician assistant at TAMC’s Aroostook Heart and Lung Center, speaks about the differences between heart disease symptoms for women and men during the third annual Women’s Health Conference on Saturday, April 14. (Melissa Lizotte)

The County Women’s Health Conference, co-sponsored by TAMC and Maine Agri-Women, encouraged women to play active roles in their own health and educated them on topics ranging from pelvic pain and female incontinence, community activities for senior citizens, physical exercise benefits and the risk factors associated with adult-use marijuana.

“I found it interesting to know how women and men process stress differently,” Joyce Pendexter of Chapman, said about McPherson’s presentation. “It shows that the stress that all women experience is normal and that we need to save some room in our lives for ourselves.”

“I’m a nurse, so some of this information hasn’t been new to me, but I think all of it is relevant to women’s health and taking care of ourselves,” said Theresa Murchison of Perth Andover, New Brunswick.

During the later half of the morning-long conference, Amanda Rautenberg, physician assistant for TAMC’s Aroostook Heart and Lung Center, told audience members that despite the common perception that men deal with more heart-related health problems, women are actually more likely to die of heart disease. Though heart disease is the number-one killer of both women and men, more women die from its complications each year than from all cancers combined.

Traditionally, heart research has focused more on men than women, which means that many men also have received more aggressive treatments for heart attacks and strokes. Today, Rautenberg explained, researchers know that while a lot of men experience crushing chest pain, shortness of breath and a quick drop in blood pressure during heart attacks, women exhibit more subtle symptoms such as dizziness, fatigue, back or neck pain, nausea and shortness of breath that may or may not come with chest pain.

Women tend to only experience one or two of those symptoms at a time, particularly with physical activity, and are more likely to attribute them to everyday tiredness and stress or confuse them with symptoms of the flu.

Health providers also are less likely to catch female symptoms of heart disease or other cardiovascular issues, especially when a patient’s general health is considered normal. Rautenburg told the story of a 55-year-old women who benefited greatly from a visit to her healthcare provider at TAMC.

“She had started getting nausea during her Zumba class, but once she sat down she was fine. Her blood pressure, body mass index and cholesterol numbers were normal, but her sister had a heart attack at age 43 and her brother had a coronary bypass at age 48,” Rautenberg said. “Because of her family’s health history, we gave her a stress test, which turned out positive, and sent her to Bangor to have a quintuple bypass surgery.”

Despite the challenges with treating women’s heart problems, Rautenberg noted that researchers have now begun to focus more on the differences between female and male symptoms and treatments. Although women cannot control their family’s heart health history, they can take early action to decrease their chances of suffering a heart attack or stroke or being diagnosed with heart disease.

“We need to empower women to be active with their own health and not take ‘no’ for an answer when it comes to seeking help from their providers,” Rautenberg said.

Earlier in the day, women who attended the conference devoted some time for physical activity. Yoga instructor Julie French led them through slow leg, arm and back stretches while encouraging them to breathe deeply and relax. She ended the brief exercise session with a quote for the day that she picked specifically for the theme of the conference.

“‘People travel to wonder at the height of the mountains, at the huge waves of the sea … and they pass by themselves without wondering,’” French said, quoting philosopher Saint Augustine. “I think we all need to remember to take time to wonder about our own lives and evaluate what’s most important to us.”

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