Women and Heart Disease Awareness Month
by Caroline Garrett
Leading into February and what happens to be American Heart Month I would like to shed some light on a very important topic. Sadly, heart disease claims more lives of women each year than any other disease including cancer. In the US alone, every 80 seconds a woman dies of heart disease. We know that multiple risk factors, both modifiable and non modifiable, play a part in increasing a woman’s risk and there is clear evidence that differences exist in the disease between males and females. Empower yourself by knowing the risk factors and what changes you can make to reduce your chances that might save your life.
First let’s review the risk factors we cannot change. These include gender, age, and family history. As we age our chances of developing heart disease and suffering a heart attack increase. Unfortunately for women, following menopause a woman’s chances are greater due to the lack of estrogen that previously provided some protection against coronary heart disease. It’s also essential to know your family history as having a mother or sister who has suffered from heart disease prior to age 65 might be a predictor for your own health risks.
Now let’s look at the risk factors that we can take control of with smoking being one of the highest priorities. Smoking tobacco is the highest predictor for heart disease that we have control over and long-term exposure to second-hand smoke increases your risk as well. A woman smoker is more likely to suffer a heart attack than her male counterpart. Plus, if you are a woman who smokes and also takes combined oral contraceptives you are at a ten times higher risk for a heart attack. Thus, quitting smoking is one of the most important steps you can take in improving your health. Talk with your provider about what resources are available to help you quit.
Diabetes is extremely high in priority as well. A woman with diabetes is three times as likely to suffer a heart attack, which increases her risk for a second, and may occur at a younger age or result in fatality. Diabetes also causes a loss of hormone protection in women who are
pre-menopause. Regular screening of blood glucose levels for early diagnosis and proper treatment management is extremely important for reducing your risk for heart disease. You also want to regularly monitor your blood cholesterol levels. Low density lipoprotein (LDL), our “bad” cholesterol, carries cholesterol to the tissues such as the heart and can cause a buildup of plaque and narrowing in the arteries. High density lipoprotein (HDL), our “good” cholesterol, protects our body by carrying cholesterol away from the tissues to be eliminated through the liver. Within the same screening, another type of fat found in the body known as triglycerides can also be an indicator for heart disease when levels rise above 150 mg/dl. More research is needed but it is believed that a low HDL & high triglyceride level is what places women over age 65 at highest risk for heart attack or stroke. Through proper diet and exercise we can help to lower our LDL and improve our HDL. I urge you to educate yourself so that you can make the necessary lifestyle changes including regular exercise and a diet low in sugar, saturated fat and cholesterol.
Another well known risk factor is hypertension, or high blood pressure, often known as the “silent killer.” Blood pressure is a measurement of how hard your heart is working to pump blood throughout your body and when that pressure is forcibly increased it puts you at greater risk for a heart attack or stroke. A normal blood pressure reading is considered less than 120/80 mm Hg. Stage one hypertension is considered a systolic reading of 130 mm Hg or greater and/or a diastolic reading of 80 mm Hg or greater. Seeing your provider regularly allows for better monitoring of your blood pressure with prompt treatment as deemed necessary. Again this can put you in the driver’s seat along with the help of your provider in maintaining your health and reducing your risk for advanced heart disease.
As continually discussed above we know that a healthy lifestyle with diet and exercise can reduce our risks for heart disease and is an important key in managing diabetes, high cholesterol and hypertension, but these principles are also important in maintaining a healthy weight. Increased weight, and more specifically increased belly fat especially in women, increases your chances of developing the above diseases thus increasing multiple risk factors for heart disease. It is recommended to engage in at least 30 minutes of continuous activity each day as being inactive will double your risk for heart disease. You also gain other benefits such as improved mood, reduced stress and better quality sleep.
Unfortunately when heart disease becomes a problem approximately one-third of women will experience either no symptoms or atypical symptoms when suffering a heart attack. Yes you may experience the classic chest pain, shortness of breath or jaw pain but many women who have suffered a heart attack complained of unusual fatigue, dizziness, nausea or vomiting, upper back pain, anxiety or trouble sleeping leading up to the event. Plus evidence shows women are less likely to seek help. It’s important to know what signs or symptoms to watch for and seek help as soon as possible if you feel your health is in danger. Do not wait.
There are also other important factors unique to women in relation to heart disease such as gestational diabetes, preeclampsia, polycystic ovarian syndrome, breast cancer and early or late onset in menstruation to name a few. What I have reviewed here is just a small glimpse at the bigger picture of heart disease in women. It’s important to spend time with your practitioner assessing your risk factors, taking control of your health and setting goals for a healthier lifestyle. A great place to start is by getting your annual checkup. Your provider will review your current health status, personal healthy history, family history and order labs or additional tests that look at your overall health.
Get comfortable in talking with your provider about your personal health, what risk factors you may have for heart disease, and what lifestyle changes if any are necessary.