Diseases of the heart and circulatory system kill over half a million women every year. Approximately 35 percent of heart attacks in women go unnoticed or unreported. This is because some women and their doctors do not always take heart disease symptoms seriously, and also because women’s symptoms are sometimes more subtle than men’s. Women do not often view heart disease as a women’s problem. They will frequently continue activities when they feel ill, either seeing their symptoms as not serious, or just not realizing that they represent a heart condition. Women and their doctors need to understand the significance of heart disease and the gender differences in risk factors and symptoms.
Heart disease and stroke can strike women at any age. The processes that lead to heart disease start in young women and develop over time. There are some risk factors you cannot control such as getting older, but by making some lifestyle changes you can lower your risk for cardiovascular disease.
Smoking is the single most preventable risk factor. Women who smoke increase their heart disease risk two to four times more than that of a nonsmoking woman. You can do something about this risk factor. If you don’t smoke, don’t start! If you do smoke … find help and quit now!
High cholesterol in the blood can build up and lead to deposits that narrow arteries and block blood flow. There are two main types of cholesterol:
High blood pressure, also known as hypertension, is the most important risk factor for heart failure and stroke. Women have a greater risk of developing high blood pressure if they are 20 pounds or more over a healthy weight for their height and build, have a family history of high blood pressure, take certain oral contraceptives, or have reached menopause. More than half of all women over the age of 55 suffer from this condition. The only way to find out if you have high blood pressure is to have it checked at least every two years. High blood pressure can be reduced by:
Physical inactivity is also a risk factor, especially when combined with excess weight and high cholesterol. About three-fourths of American women are not active enough to keep their hearts healthy. Thirty minutes of moderate-intensity physical exercise a day on most days will help gain heart health benefits.
Being overweight (obesity) increases your risk of cardiovascular disease. Excess body weight in women is linked with coronary heart disease, congestive heart failure, stroke, and death from heart related causes.
Diabetes mellitus is a condition where the body is unable to either produce or respond to the hormone insulin. Women with diabetes have from three to seven times greater risk of heart disease and heart attack, and are at much greater risk of having a stroke. Diabetes doubles the risk of a second heart attack in women, but not in men.
Other risk factors for women:
The classic warning signs of a heart attack are pressure in the chest and pain shooting down the left arm. These symptoms are more common for middle-aged men. Only 50 percent of women will experience these symptoms.
Common warning signs:
Less common warning signs:
If you are having these symptoms, it is important that you speak to your physician about your symptoms.
When you visit your physician, you will be asked about your medical history and symptoms. To diagnose a possible cardiovascular problem, a physical examination will be done that may include checking blood pressure, weight, heart, lungs, and blood vessels. Your physician will want to assess the condition of your heart and may suggest additional blood tests, X-ray, ECG, ambulatory ECG, exercise test, heart catheterization and/or nuclear imaging. These tests will help determine if you have heart disease.
Your doctor will explain the results of your tests. With the information obtained from your tests, your doctor will be able to determine the best possible treatment plan for you. Whatever you and your doctor decide will be explained to you in full detail.
A primary care physician may recommend a cardiologist, or you may have the option to choose one yourself. The cardiologist will guide your care and plan treatments and tests.
Now that you have a better understanding of heart disease in women, you should be able to more fully understand your symptoms and the treatments you may need.