By Diana Walker
Did you know that cardiovascular disease (CVD) is the leading cause of death among women in the United States? If you said no, you are not alone. The American Heart Association conducted a survey in 2012 that found 44 percent of women were unaware of their No. 1 health risk. In fact, heart disease causes more deaths in women than all cancers combined.
Just one risk factor greatly increases the chance of developing heart disease and the Office on Women’s Health reports that having multiple is especially serious. Risk factors also increase as women age, with 80 percent of women between the ages of 40 and 60 having at least one, according to the National Heart, Lung and Blood Institute. General health, family history and daily habits can all impact a woman’s risk for CVD.
Risk Factors for Heart Disease
The primary culprits for heart disease among both women and men, according to The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), are high low-density lipoprotein cholesterol, smoking, and high blood pressure. The CDC reports that 49 percent of Americans have at least one of these three factors.
Other risk factors include:
- Physical inactivity
- Unhealthy eating habits
- Being overweight or obese
- History of preeclampsia during pregnancy
- Early menopause
- Increased age
Women ages 55 and older are at a greater risk for heart disease than women in their 20s and 30s, though heart disease can begin as early as in the teenage years. The increased aptitude for heart disease after age 55 is a result of the body’s drop in natural estrogen production. The good news is that some of these threats can be controlled.
Reducing Your Risk
At any age, women can protect themselves from heart disease by reducing habits that are detrimental to their health and adding healthy lifestyle behaviors to their daily routines. These include:
- Eliminating smoking and/or exposure to secondhand smoke
- Participating in regular physical activity
- Eating healthfully
- Reducing stress
- Treating depression
- Keeping blood pressure, body mass index, and cholesterol levels within the recommended ranges
- Limiting alcoholic beverages to one a day
Postmenopausal women should talk with their doctors about the use of hormone therapy to relieve common menopausal symptoms such as hot flashes. According to the National Heart, Lung and Blood Institute, the risks for heart attack, stroke and blood clots are low at the average age of menopause. However, clinical trials done by the Women’s Health Initiative in 2002 showed that long-term use of hormone therapy posed serious health risks including increased propensity of heart attacks and stroke.
Heart Attacks in Women are Different
Women and men may experience classic signs of a heart attack, such as pain and discomfort in the chest and upper body. However, nontraditional symptoms, such as shortness of breath, nausea, indigestion, heart burn, vomiting, extreme fatigue, and pain in the back, neck, jaw or throat, are more often experienced by women. Heart attack symptoms may also include discomfort originating in the chest or back with radiation to one arm or both arms. These signs are important and should not be ignored or pushed off as something else. Women should also be aware of the warning signs for “silent” myocardial infarctions (SMI).
The American Heart Association reports that roughly 45 percent of all heart attacks are “silent,” meaning they have few or no symptoms. SMI’s are almost always associated with an unfavorable outcome because of the extensive damage done to the heart with no intervention. There are a few indicators of SMI, including mild and brief symptoms such as pressure, squeezing, heaviness or pain in the center of the chest that comes and goes, discomfort in other upper-body areas, shortness of breath accompanied by chest discomfort, and breaking out in a cold sweat, feeling nauseous or lightheaded. These seemingly mild symptoms may be the beginning of a heart attack. Many times, patients have these vague symptoms days or even weeks before a heart attack occurs. Individuals experiencing more than one of these warning signs should seek immediate medical attention.
With knowledge, comes power. Educating women about the prevalence of cardiovascular disease and the risk factors associated with it can help save lives.
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