Heart attacks tend to strike men in their prime, but few women have heart attacks before age 65. Yet, overall, heart disease is the number one killer of women in America, claiming six times as many lives as breast cancer. And women are twice as likely as men to die following a heart attack.
Recognizing the Warning Signs
Because women aren’t expected to have heart disease, warning signs are often missed or misdiagnosed. Doctors may inadvertently ignore chest discomfort or may prescribe antacids. When tests are given, false results are more common in women and the overall clinical situation more often misinterpreted. If you experience symptoms worrisome for heart disease such as chest discomfort (tightness or pressure) upon exertion, insist on a full cardiology exam.
Knowing Your Risk Factors
Some risk factors women should be aware of include family history of heart disease, high blood pressure, high blood cholesterol, smoking and birth control pills. Women who both smoke and take birth control pills have 39 times the risk of heart disease as those who do neither.
Post-Menopause: The Biggest Risk Factor
The most significant risk factor for heart disease in women is post-menopause. Young women seldom have heart disease because they’re protected by estrogen, which seems to slow the buildup of cholesterol and high blood pressure. After menopause, this protection disappears and women eventually equal men in the rate of heart disease.
What You Can Do
To protect yourself against heart disease, eat a low-fat diet (no more than 30 percent of your calories from fat) that is high in fiber and vegetables. Exercise at least three times a week for 30 minutes or more. Don’t smoke, especially if you’re taking birth control pills. If you’re approaching menopause or are post-menopausal, talk with your physician about ways you can reduce your risk for heart disease. If you have a heart condition, choose a cardiologist who is familiar with the differences in the way women respond to diagnosis and treatment compared to men. Finally, the most important thing you can do is take charge of your own health – no one is in a better position to do it than you. FBN
James Dwyer, M.D. is an interventional cardiologist at the Heart & Vascular Center of Northern Arizona (HVCNA) where he specializes in cardiac catheterization and coronary interventions. HVCNA is a world-class physician practice offering services ranging from general cardiology and the treatment of chronic heart and vascular conditions to advanced surgical techniques, including open heart surgery. HVCNA is a partnership between Flagstaff Medical Center and Verde Valley Medical Center, with offices located in Camp Verde, Cottonwood, Flagstaff, Sedona and Winslow. For more information on the Heart & Vascular Center of Northern Arizona, visit NAHeartCare.com. To make an appointment, call 877-928-WELL.