Women at greater risk of heart disease warns Mother Teresa’s Surgeon


Dr Carlos Macaya received worldwide recognition as a cardiovascular surgeon after he operated on the tender heart of Mother Teresa. Now, as the President of the Spanish Heart Foundation, he wages the war on heart disease in Spain.

Spanish women die five per cent more than men from cardiovascular diseases.
Dr Carlos Macaya

Back in 1993, Dr Carlos Macaya was a young Spanish doctor who had started to receive recognition as an expert in the implementation of stents (splints for the heart). Then, one day he received an urgent call from Calcutta requesting that he gets on a plane to India to operate on none other than Mother Teresa.

“Essentially, she had suffered from cardiovascular problems since the early eighties and had already experienced a heart attack in 1991,” Macaya told us. “It seemed that my name had come to the attention of one of her Mexican physicians. I was tremendously honoured to receive such an assignment.”

After this momentous career moment, things for Macaya showed no signs of slowing down. As well as being the President of the Spanish Heart Foundation (FEC), he is also Professor of Cardiology at the Faculty of Medicine of the Complutense University of Madrid and director of the Cardiology Service at the San Carlos Clinical Hospital.

According to the latest report from the National Institute of Statistics, cardiovascular disease remains the leading cause of death in Spain (29.17 per cent), ahead of cancer (27.50 per cent) and diseases of the respiratory system (11.4 per cent). Around 120,000 people die every year in Spain from cardiovascular complications.

 “Interestingly Spain is second only to Japan in terms of having the highest prevalence of hypertension. There is much debate over why this is the case, but my suspicion is it may well have something to do with salt intake.” Macaya explained. “Both nations, after all, consume large quantities of fish. Though we are nominally host to the healthy Mediterranean diet, the reality is more complex: younger generations of Spaniards are increasingly opting for unhealthy fast food.”

Macaya insists that the Spanish people are aware of the importance of a healthy lifestyle to keep cardiovascular complications at bay, but like many nations, they tend to disregard the advice.

“Good and efficient communication is necessary to eliminate misconceptions, such as the general belief that men die more from cardiovascular disease when the reality is different: Spanish women die five per cent more than men from cardiovascular diseases.”

The heart attack is so often painted as a male problem. It is true that more men die from heart attacks in absolute numbers, but the condition can be more lethal in women as they take longer to request healthcare due to the difficulties they have in identifying it. According to a study presented at the last SEC Congress of the Spanish Society of Cardiology, only 39 per cent of women compared to 57 per cent of men recognize the symptoms of acute myocardial infarction. This indicates the unbalanced communication around heart disease that often promotes the illness as exclusively male. It is a well-known statistic that women are more health conscious and likely to see a medical professional if feeling unwell. This is what makes this disparity in awareness of heart attacks so surprising.

The main purpose of the FEC as stipulated in Statute is “to promote education, the prevention and research of cardiovascular health in civil society, the encouragement and dissemination of cardio-healthy life habits for the Spanish population.”

Macaya maintains that “If cardiovascular disease is the leading cause of death and it can be prevented by more than 80 per cent in terms of premature deaths, it is clear that it is tremendously necessary to act in the field of prevention, and this is our mission.”

Read our full interview with Carlos Macaya here.

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