What Women Need to Know about Heart Health

older mom with older daughter standing with hands connected in heart shape

February is American Heart Month. Traditionally, heart health research and outreach has focused largely on men. But women are at equally high risk of heart disease—even though, we now know, the causes, risk factors, treatment and even symptoms of heart attack and other cardiovascular conditions can be quite different for female patients.

Experts say most women underestimate their risk of heart disease. Many women believe they are at higher risk of dying from breast cancer—even though, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), heart disease is the leading cause of death for women. Many are unaware that heart attack can strike women younger than 55. And when they experience symptoms of heart attack, women often brush them off as indigestion, a pulled muscle, hormonal changes or an anxiety attack. Rather than call 9-1-1, women might discuss what they’re experiencing with a friend, or go online to research their symptoms.

The National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute also reports that women who are having a heart attack and seek medical attention are more likely to be misdiagnosed and sent home, without receiving diagnostic tests such as an EKG.

To remedy this information gap, health organizations are working to raise awareness of heart health, both among women and health professionals. What should women know about their unique experience of heart disease?

The symptoms of heart disease may be different for women.

According to the CDC, sometimes women can have heart disease with no noticeable symptoms— “silent” heart disease. Others might experience vague symptoms. The CDC counsels women to be alert for:

  • Warning signs of a heart attack: chest pain, pressure or discomfort; pain in the neck, jaw or throat; dizziness; upper back pain; indigestion, heartburn, nausea and vomiting; extreme fatigue; upper body discomfort and shortness of breath.
  • Signs of arrhythmia: a fluttering feeling in the chest, racing heartbeat.
  • Symptoms of congestive heart failure (a condition that happens when the heart cannot pump enough blood and oxygen to support other organs of the body): shortness of breath, coughing, fatigue, swelling of the feet, ankles, legs or abdomen.

Experts urge women to play it safe. Even if they aren’t sure their symptoms could be heart related, they shouldn’t wait to call 9-1-1. Mount Sinai Hospital in New York reports that each year 435,000 million women in the U.S. have a heart attack, and heart attacks claim the lives of about 267,000 women each year. Many of these deaths could be prevented.

The cause of heart attacks can also be different.

“Heart attacks caused by blockages in the main arteries leading to the heart can occur in both men and women. However, the way the blockages form a blood clot may differ,” reports the American Heart Association (AHA). “Compared to men, women can have less severe blockages that do not require any stents (a tiny mesh tube that props open an artery); yet the heart’s coronary artery blood vessels are damaged, which results in decreased blood flow to the heart muscle. The result is the same—when blood flow to the heart is decreased for any reason, a heart attack can occur.”

Diagnosis is important for optimum treatment.

“If doctors don’t correctly diagnose the underlying cause of a woman’s heart attack, they may not be prescribing the right type of treatments after the heart attack,” the AHA says. “Medical therapies are similar regardless of the cause of the heart attack or the severity of the blockages. However, women are undertreated compared to men.” Women also face a greater risk of complications during the attempt to restore blood flow after a heart attack, and afterward they’re less likely to be prescribed or to take the recommended medications. Women also are less likely to take part in cardiac rehabilitation, a program of exercise, counseling and education to lower the risk of suffering another heart attack.

What about risk factors?

Though even younger women can have a heart attack, the risk of heart disease rises with age. Mount Sinai Hospital experts remind women to know these other numbers: blood pressure, total cholesterol and HDL (good cholesterol) and LDL (bad cholesterol) numbers, triglyceride level, glucose level and body mass index (BMI).

They also say heredity is a factor. “If you have a family history of heart disease, tell your doctor since you’ll need to pay extra attention to your family history as an individual risk factor,” said Mount Sinai cardiologist Dr. Icilma Fergus. “Also, if you are African American or Hispanic you should know that you are at higher risk for cardiovascular events and stroke than Caucasians.”

How can women lower their risk?

Here are 10 lifestyle changes that can protect a woman’s heart:

  1. Follow your doctor’s recommendations to keep blood pressure under control.
  2. Lower your cholesterol.
  3. Monitor your blood sugar and control diabetes and prediabetes.
  4. Eat a healthy diet, with lots of fruits and vegetables, fiber and healthy proteins.
  5. Get plenty of exercise. Talk to your doctor about an exercise plan that’s right for you.
  6. Maintain a healthy weight—especially focusing on reducing belly fat.
  7. Talk to your doctor about a quit smoking program.
  8. Limit your alcohol consumption.
  9. Control your stress.
  10. Get plenty of good-quality sleep.

Source: IlluminAge with information from Mount Sinai Hospital in New York, the American Heart Association, the National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention

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