What’s the number one killer among women? Despite lingering misconceptions, heart disease is the leading cause of death for women in the United States. A study from the Journal of the American College of Cardiology 2017 showed that only half of women realize this fact; the remainder thought breast cancer or other cancers were the culprit.
These statistics certainly have held true in my family, as both of my grandmothers had significant heart disease. In fact, my personal experience with women’s heart disease was the primary driver behind my decision to pursue a career in cardiology.
Even though it’s true that more men have heart attacks than women, women are more likely die after a heart attack for several reasons. Women tend to ignore or brush aside their symptoms, blaming them on stress and their busy lifestyles, or they may not realize that atypical symptoms, like fatigue and shortness of breath, are signs of heart disease before it’s too late.
So, what steps can women take to protect their heart health? They can start by knowing their risk factors. Nearly half of all Americans have at least one of three major risk factors: high blood pressure, high blood cholesterol, or smoking. Other medical conditions and lifestyle choices can also put people at higher risk for heart disease, including diabetes, obesity, an unhealthy diet, physical inactivity, and excessive alcohol use.
There are also atypical risk factors for coronary artery disease that are much more common in women, such as inflammatory conditions like lupus and rheumatoid arthritis. Chest radiation associated with breast cancer or lymphoma can also increase the risk of heart problems.
Secondly, women should know that while chest pain remains the number-one symptom, heart disease can also cause fatigue, shortness of breath, jaw pain, nausea, sweating, and arm pain. If you notice any of these symptoms, don’t ignore them; check in with your doctor immediately.
Lastly, healthy lifestyle choices and habits can make a difference. While some risk factors are out of your control, such as family history or being over age 45, there are choices you can make now that will lower your risk of heart disease. These include: eating a healthy diet that includes a variety of fruits, vegetables, whole grains, lean meats and fish; monitoring your sodium, fat and sugar intake; and watching your portion sizes; limiting alcohol consumption; drink moderately (or not at all); sticking to a regular exercise program of at least 30 minutes a day; keeping your weight in check, and asking your doctor about what a healthy weight means for you; getting enough sleep; taking care of your mental health and treating stress; knowing your numbers, including cholesterol, blood pressure, and more. Talk to your doctor to learn about these key numbers.
Houston Mooney, MD, is a board-certified cardiologist with Baptist Heart Specialists at Baptist Medical Center Nassau and a Fellow of the American College of Cardiology. If you’re looking for a physician, call 904.202.4YOU to find one who’s right for you.