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Sanjay Gupta MD

Biggest Health Issues Facing Women Today; What You Should Be Asking for at the Doctor's Office; A Woman's Weight Loss Story

Aired May 17, 2008 - 08:30   ET


DR. SANJAY GUPTA, CNN HOST: Good morning, I'm Dr. Sanjay Gupta. Welcome to a very special edition of HOUSE CALL.
Today, we're empowering women to take charge of their health. I'll sit down with a woman who's led some of the most respected medical institutions in the country. We're going to talk about the biggest health issues facing women today.

Plus, find out what you should be asking for at the doctor's office when you go in for your next exam. Very important. And Dr. Christian Northrup gives you tips you can follow everyday, tips that she calls the keys to health.

Finally, meet a woman who's weight has been suffocating her. Discover how she went from struggling for breath to training for a marathon.

First up, though, heart disease. New research finds big differences between men and women on everything, from symptoms to treatment. Women tend to have smaller blockages, taking up no more than 50 percent of blood vessel. That lack of serious blockage may be why the study also found women were significantly less likely to receive medications, like beta blockers and statins, which can be critical for preventing further cardiac episodes.

One thing's for sure -- women need to know that for most of them, heart disease is their biggest health threat.


GUPTA (voice-over): Can you hear it? The biggest muscle in your body and it's trying to tell you something. But it seems many women aren't listening, even as heart disease continues to claim more women than all cancers combined.

Or to put it another way, one in three American women will die each year from heart disease.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: Hi, Lisa. How are you doing today?

GUPTA: That's a sobering statistic for Lisa Kuzman, who's dad died of a heart attack when he was 47. Then her 45-year old brother died of a heart attack. Kuzman was not only traumatized, she was terrified for her own heart.

LISA KUZMAN, AT RISK OF HEART ATTACK: How many times is this going to happen in my family? I was very concerned for my own health.

GUPTA: And she should be. Family history puts her at greater risk. And it's something she can't control. Other factors women can't control: age. Your risk increases as you get older. And race. African-American women are 35 percent more likely to die of heart disease than white women.

The good news is there are things you can do to reduce your risk. Adopting a healthy diet is one. Getting regular exercise is another. And if you smoke, stop. For Lisa, it was a doctor's question that prompted her to take action.

KUZMAN: Do you want to be here for your children? So it's like almost like put your children in front of you everyday and that'll be your motivation to get yourself on the right track. And it was a good motivation.


GUPTA: Also hear later in the show just how much attitude can affect your health. I'll give you a clue. It's a lot.

First, though, we just sat down at a women's health summit, combining an amazing amount of knowledge all in one room. I had the opportunity to sit down with the first woman ever to head the National Institutes of Health. Dr. Bernadine Healy, she's a cardiologist. She's also a cancer survivor.


GUPTA: It's striking to me, though, I have to say and we started with this that this message about heart disease in women is just seems so hard to get through. Why is it?

BERNADINE HEALY, FMR. DIR., NATL. INSTITUTES OF HEALTH: Well, I think part of it is that men tend to get heart disease earlier than women do. Women tend to get heart disease 10 years later than men do. They seem to be protected during their child bearing years.

So I think that that attitude, plus the research being done in men exclusively, made it clear that heart disease was the widow maker, not the widower maker as I was taught in medical school.

GUPTA: I still think it's, you know, people find it striking if you hear a 45 or 55-year old woman taking a statin drug. They just say, well, wait a second, that -- but that was something that meant to specifically should. I mean, is there a bias towards prescribing medications that could possibly prevent heart disease to women?

HEALY: Well, I think that we're seeing more prescriptions for women because we're realizing that women have cholesterol problems as well. The fact is estrogen in a pre-menopausal woman has her hormones that are protecting her and helping her cholesterol and lipid profile.

But I think that women increasingly, if they have an elevated LDL cholesterol, they get treated with statins. But again, you can overdo statins.

You know, no one should leave their doctor's office Monday with a prescription, I don't care what it's for, without saying is this right for me?

GUPTA: I'm going to switch topics for one second. I think it's important question to ask you for any parent out there. You wrote a piece recently for "U.S. News and World Report" specifically about autism, where you said that it was biologically plausible that vaccines could cause autism. And that was a pretty surprising, I think, maybe striking comment, given your position, your scientific background. Where did that come from?

HEALY: Well, I think there is a science base. And historically, we do know that in susceptible individuals in an almost inexplicably, some patients will have neurotoxicity from vaccines. We've known that for years going back to 1930s. We knew about swine flu and (INAUDIBLE). We do know that that happens.

It is a plausible hypothesis. I think the second thing is the mercury in vaccines, and I know families have been criticized for raising that issue, but we have to realize we're giving kids three, four times the number of vaccines that we were doing 10 or 15 years ago. Or certainly my little girls were getting their vaccines. And that for a while, they were getting toxic levels cumulatively.

So when parents got together and said wait a minute, we're giving our kids toxic level of mercury, that was a legitimate thing for them to raise. It was a legitimate concern. And there is evidence that that can be brain toxic probably in susceptible individuals. And we don't know which ones.

What I was trying to get across in that editorial is something that is a message for every drug you put in your mouth, for every therapy. And that is individuals react differently.


GUPTA: Coming up on HOUSE CALL, catching illness early. What screenings you need to get and when to get them.

Plus, why one expert is saying it's not germs, maybe it's your lifestyle that's making you sick.

But first, a check of the medical headlines. That's 60 seconds away.


GUPTA: Welcome back to HOUSE CALL. It's time for a check of the medical headlines. We turn to Judy Fortin for a look at other stories in the news this week -- Judy?


JUDY FORTIN, CNN MEDICAL CORRESPONDENT: Thanks, Sanjay. There's yet another benefit of exercise. A large new study of women shows high levels of physical activity between ages 12 and 35 reduces the risk of developing breast cancer before menopause by 23 percent. The more active a woman, particularly between ages 12 and 22, the lower the breast cancer risk.

Researchers say exercise reduces exposure to the hormone estrogen, which has been linked to breast cancer. And that may explain the lower risk.

And the autism debates hits the courtroom again. In a special vaccine court, two families are alleging thimerosol, the mercury preservative in some childhood vaccines, caused autism in their children. These are just two of almost 5000 cases filed in the federal vaccine court. The results may impact thousands of families seeking compensation. The CDC, FDA, and American Academy of Pediatrics say the link between mercury vaccines and autism is non- existent. We'll continue to keep an eye on this case.

Also in the news, actor Dennis Quaid testified on Capitol Hill about the medication mistake that almost killed his newborn twins last year. Quaid is urging Congress to allow consumers to sue pharmaceutical companies over medical errors.

DENNIS QUAID, ACTOR: lawsuits is allowed to prevail, it will basically make all of us public uninformed and uncompensated lab rats.

FORTIN: But drug companies argue that if the FDA has approved their device or drug, then they should be exempt from lawsuits. The Quaid family is suing Baxter Pharmaceuticals.

Those are this week's medical headlines.


GUPTA: Coming up next, what women need to know about taking care of themselves.

And later in the show, your body reaching a breaking point at the age of 26! We'll tell you what drastic measures this woman took to get her life back on track. Stay with us.


GUPTA: Whether you're a woman or you just care about one, you probably know that woman often puts their own needs behind everyone else's. But as we have women's health week, we'd like to remind women that they need to take care of themselves as well, starting with the medical tests they need as they age.


FORTIN (voice-over): At age 45, Tricia Bursey Elmore isn't slowing down. She's never been one to sit on the sidelines. Still, she says, she can't ignore the aches and pains that come with age. In order to stay healthy, she gets a physical every year, along with a mammogram. She says she's also hoping to drop a few pounds.

TRISHA BURSEY ELMORE, HEALTHY MOM: Well, I worry about my diet, my weight, cholesterol, things that you didn't worry about so much in my 30s.

FORTIN: In their 30s, women should pay attention to their hearts. Heart disease is the number one killer of women. And doctors say the focus on heart health should begin at a young age.

PATRICIA DAVIDSON, DR., WASHINGTON HOSPITAL CTR.: The point is that you don't want the plaque to form. You don't want to have to be trying to reverse it after your angioplasty or bypass surgery.

FORTIN: Doctors say that means exercise and eating a healthy diet, low in sodium and fat, high in Omega-3 fatty acids and loaded up with fruits and veggies. Keeping up with regular breast exams, pelvic exams, and pap smears also important. And some women may want to consider adding more calcium to their diet for strong bones.

In their 40s, women are generally encouraged to begin getting regular mammograms. Although there's been some controversy on this topic, the American Cancer Society says mammograms are the best way to find breast cancer early.

In their 50s, women should get colonoscopies for detection of colon cancer and keep up with regular checkups. As for Tricia, she says being a healthy, modern mom can be difficult sometimes.

ELMORE: I think there are those moments with your child where you're thinking, oh, you know, I need to be around for her. And then on the other hand, you're focusing on that child, you're focusing on, you know, your family, making sure your child eats right and does everything. And you kind of put yourself a little bit on the back burner.

FORTIN: But she tries to slip in a little me time to stay healthy so she can enjoy being with her family for years to come.

Judy Fortin, CNN, Atlanta.


GUPTA: Coming up on HOUSE CALL, a doctor and best-selling author who practices a different approach to women's health.

And later in the show, pregnant and over 35. What are your health risks? That's coming up on "Ask the Doctor," my favorite segment. Stay with us.


GUPTA: Welcome back to HOUSE CALL. This show is about helping you live a healthier life, empowering you to make informed decisions about your health.

Now we just finished a women's health summit, where CNN's Elizabeth Cohen sat down with the best-selling author, Dr. Christiane Northrup. They talked about Northrop's keys to health and how anyone can be an empowered patient.


ELIZABETH COHEN, CNN MEDICAL CORRESPONDENT: What are the biggest mistakes that women make with their own health?

CHRISTIANE NORTHRUP, DR., "WOMEN'S BODIES, WOMEN'S WISDOM": First of all, they don't take care of it. And they think that their body and the processes of their female body -- their menstrual cycle, menopause, breast feeding -- they think those are mistakes that need medical attention and need to be fixed. When in fact, those processes are imbued with wisdom that is in fact a guidance system for women.

COHEN: You have wonderful quote here. You once said "illness does not leap out of the closet and land on us."


COHEN: What do you mean by that?

NORTHRUP: The key here is not to get out the flail and whip yourself if you get an illness. But later on, in the quiet reflective time, you say how can I be accountable for what has happened to me?

I had a big old fibroid, big as a soccer ball, right side, OK? Right side, typically the masculine side, or the men in your life. And I believe that fibroids, which 40 percent of women have, are creativity that hasn't been burst yet, or they are creative energy that we have pushed into a dead end job or a relationship.

Now as soon as I had that removed and I said to the anesthesiologist, this is like if you ever need surgery, tell the anesthesiologist and the anesthesticist to whisper to you what you want to have embedded into your subconscious, because when you're going in and out of anesthesia, you are highly suggestible. So my statement was, and when I awaken, the pattern that caused this will have left my body.

And two years later, I was divorced. Now am I saying that this man caused it? Absolutely not. What I'm saying is I was in a situation where I was really doing everything in my part -- like so many of you women do, I know you do, you are trying to make this stuff work -- jobs, relationships, things with kids, pets. You're going to do everything in your power to make it work, when it isn't really meant to work. And you don't have to try as hard.

COHEN: Well, what exactly is a holistic approach to health?

NORTHRUP: It means an approach which appreciates the contribution of body, mind, and spirit to the manifestation in the physical body, that all illness has a physical, a genetic, an emotional, a spiritual component. And that to get really, really well, you must address all of those.

COHEN: Laurie Goletto has a question. I love this one. If I were a car, what would my maintenance schedule be?


COHEN: I'm 36-years old.


COHEN: That's all we know about Laurie.

NORTHRUP: OK. Your maintenance schedule needs to include a Vitamin D level, for starters. Everybody in this audience should have their Vitamin D level drawn. And you want to look for a level of 30 or above. We have a pandemic of Vitamin D deficiency, which is associated with an increased risk of prostate cancer, breast cancer, MS, arthritis, Type I diabetes in children. So get that test drawn.

And then I would follow it until you know that your levels are 30 or 40. You all need to be on 1,000, at least, international units of Vitamin D per day. You can get it from salmon.

Your maintenance schedule should be regular exercise. Not making it so medical. You pretty much should have a lipid profile every five years. That's your triglycerides and your HDL and your LDL and all of that sort of thing.

Other than that, if you're doing fine, and a pap smear maybe every five years, unless you've had problems, you don't need a whole lot at the age of 36, except that Vitamin D level and the exercise. And then some way to deal effectively with the stress and the disappointment and the negativity that is part of everybody's life.


GUPTA: All right, Elizabeth, thanks. And be sure to check out Every week, she writes about ways you can empower yourself to get the most out of your health care.

Now just ahead on HOUSE CALL, being overweight and struggling to breathe. This woman made some drastic changes to save her own life.


UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: It was at that point that I was like, wow, that's crazy. I'm 26, you know, and I can't breathe because I'm too fat. I was just -- and it just -- something just clicked.



GUPTA: We're back with HOUSE CALL. At age 28, Kelly Pless began working toward a goal she never thought possible. With trouble breathing and an aching body, Kelly persevered.

Here's her story.


GUPTA: Kelly Pless was a happy child, who grew up running and playing sports. But as her age crept up, so did her weight.

KELLY PLESS, LOST 95 POUNDS: And by the time I graduated high school, I think I was 215, 220.

GUPTA: And after college, her self image became a major issue.

PLESS: I had tied my complete self worth to how I look. I think then I thought if I were only thin, you know, I would be happy and I would be worthy.

GUPTA: But Kelly would soon be inspired by a co-worker, who reached his goal of running a marathon. She decided to start training for a half marathon of her own, but her lungs wanted no part of it.

PLESS: I went to a pulmonary specialist to tell him that I need help with my asthma because I was having a hard time breathing. And he told me you don't have asthma. There's nothing wrong with your lungs. You just -- you have too much weight and it's compressing your lungs.

And it was at that point that I was like, wow, that's crazy. I'm 26, you know? I can't breathe because I'm too fat. I was just -- and it just -- something just clicked.

GUPTA: So Kelly kept running, started eating healthier, and stopped caring what other people thought of her.

PLESS: I wasn't thinking about losing weight to look pretty. I wasn't thinking about losing weight for someone else. I was just thinking about becoming more healthy.

GUPTA: Her weight loss philosophy was simple.

PLESS: I eat when I'm hungry and don't when I'm not. If it's got calories, it's going to put calories on me, I'd better be able to chew it. If you burn more calories than you take in, you're going to lose weight. There's nothing magic about it.

I'm Kelly Pless and I lost 95 pounds.


GUPTA: Coming up, can your heart handle your doctor's visit? The strange condition that has some patients' blood pressure rising. And the genetic condition impacting thousands of newborns every year. Why the mother's age may be a risk factor. You won't want to miss our "Ask the Doctor" segment. It's coming up after the break.


GUPTA: We're back with HOUSE CALL and it's time for the segment "Ask the Doctor." We asked the medical questions that are on your minds. Let's start with the questions from our roving camera. (BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: CNN, I'm pregnant and I'm 35. I wanted to find out exactly is there a greater risk for my child to have Downs Syndrome?


GUPTA: That is a great question, a question we get a lot of. The big concern, especially as more women over 35 are having babies these days. Downs Syndrome is the most common birth defects affecting about 5,000 newborns in the United States every year.

As you age, the risk of having a baby with Downs Syndrome increases from about 1 in 1250 babies at age 25 to about 1 in 400 at age 35. By age 45, the risk is 1 in 30.

Now there's no way to prevent the condition. So if you're at high risk or you already have one child with Downs Syndrome, seeing a genetic counselor before getting pregnant could be helpful. And screenings are offered as a routine part of prenatal care.

Now, I also have another question. This one's from Hazel in Georgia. She asks this. "Could you discuss white coat syndrome? Why is my blood pressure high at my doctor's office, but normal at home?"

White coat syndrome, something that I am familiar with, occurs when a patient's blood pressure is normal at home, but peaks to unhealthy levels around their doctor. Experts estimate 10 percent to 20 percent of patients experience this with stress and anxiety the likely culprit. Stress and anxiety from seeing your doctor, apparently. Trying to figure out what's stressing you out and come up with ways to calm yourself, that should really help some of those high numbers.

But -- and it's a big one -- make sure the spikes really are temporary. Wearing a 24-hour blood pressure monitor to periodically record your levels is a good way to determine if the increase is short-term or if it could be a cause for greater concern.

Unfortunately, that's all the time we have for today. If you missed any part of today's show, be sure to check out my podcast on Remember, as always, this is the place for the answers to all of your medical questions.

Thanks for watching. I'm Dr. Sanjay Gupta. More news on CNN starts right now.