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Women and Heart Disease – Take Steps to Decrease Your Risk

Woman talking to her doctorMen are from Mars and Women are from Venus, a best-selling novel several years ago, clearly convinced women that emotionally they differed from men. Unfortunately, despite American Heart Association’s increased awareness campaign for women, 46% of women still don’t know their relationship to heart disease. Not only are women different from men when it comes to heart disease, but 90% of women have one or more risk factors for developing heart disease.

Below are key points for every woman to know:

  • Heart disease is the No. 1 killer of women.
  • Heart disease doesn’t affect all women the same.
  • Warning signs for heart disease are not the same as for men.

Every minute in the United States someone’s wife, mother, daughter, or sister dies from heart disease, stroke or another form of cardiovascular disease (CV). Many things put a female at risk for problems – some you can control and others that you can’t. With the right information, education and care, heart disease in women can be treated, prevented and even ended. Understanding what heart disease is, knowing your risk factors, knowing the symptoms of heart disease and finally reducing your chances of heart disease with life style changes depends on one person – you.

What is Heart Disease?

It can take many forms:

  • Heart disease can affect the blood vessels. Many problems relate to atherosclerosis known as plaque buildup in the walls of the arteries. The plaque in the arteries narrows the arteries making it harder for the blood to flow through the arteries. When this happens, the plaque can burst, form a clot and stop blood flow to the heart. This causes a heart attack or if the vessel is in the brain –a stroke.
  • Heart disease does not stop there. Heart failure describes the fact that the heart does not pump as well as it should to meet the needs of your body. The body does not receive enough oxygen and the heart continues to work but it cannot move blood and fluid through the body sufficiently.
  • Heart disease can cause irregular, fast or slow heartbeats known as arrhythmias.

Know the Risk factors:

  • High blood pressure, high bad cholesterol (LDL), and smoking are the main risk factors for heart disease
  • Diabetes
  • Overweight and obesity
  • Poor diet
  • Physical inactivity
  • Alcohol excess (for woman > 1 drink daily

Symptoms may include:

  • Heart Attack: Chest pain or discomfort, upper back pain, indigestion, heartburn, nausea/vomiting, extreme fatigue, upper body discomfort, and shortness of breath. Some women have no pain.
  • Arrhythmia: Fluttering feelings in the chest (palpitations).
  • Heart Failure: Shortness of breath, fatigue, swelling of the feet/ankles/legs/abdomen.
  • Stroke: Sudden weakness, paralysis (inability to move) or numbness of the face/arms/legs, especially on one side of the body. Other symptoms may include confusion, trouble speaking or understanding speech, difficulty seeing in one or both eyes, shortness of breath, dizziness, loss of balance or coordination, loss of consciousness, or sudden and severe headache.7

Reduce your chances for getting heart disease by:

  • Checking your blood pressure regularly. High blood pressure has no symptoms but uncontrolled blood pressure increases the work of your heart.
  • Controlling diabetes. Uncontrolled diabetes increases your chances of heart disease.
  • Discuss with your provider regular checks of your cholesterol and triglycerides.
  • Daily healthy food choices are vital to decreasing weight and lowering your risk for heart disease.
  • Lower your alcohol intake to 1 drink daily.
  • Learn healthy ways to cope with stress.

As women, we don’t have an easy introduction to heart disease. More than likely we meet heart disease through a cardiac event like a heart attack, heart failure, and or an arrhythmia. The silence of heart disease is life shattering as 64% of women who die suddenly of coronary heart disease have no symptoms. Please consider caring for yourself as described; your life depends upon you!

Lynn Toth, RN, MSN, NP-C, is a cardiovascular medical specialist at Beebe Healthcare and coordinates the heart failure and stroke programs serving as chair. She received the Delaware nurse excellence award in 2014 and serves as the chair for the American Heart Association Advocacy Committee for Cardiovascular Disease in Delaware.