When it comes to women and heart disease, what you don’t know can not only hurt you, it can kill you. When surveyed about their greatest health risk, American women typically mention breast cancer. Actually, the numbers tell a far different story.
Each year, more than 500,000 American women die from cardiovascular disease, compared with 40,000 deaths annually from breast cancer. Heart disease actually kills more women than all forms of cancer combined. Yet, according to an article in the April 28, 2003, issue of Time Magazine, only 8 percent of American women are aware of that fact. Heart disease can also lead to disability and a significantly decreased quality of life.
Many physicians lack awareness about this fact too. Until recently, many health care professionals regarded heart disease primarily as a men’s health concern. In 2001 the medical journal American Family Physician published an article entitled, Coronary Artery Disease Prevention: What’s Different for Women? This has led to an increased awareness. Since that time, more articles have been written about women and heart disease in medical journals and popular magazines.
In the past, women were not always included in large research studies about heart disease, and this is believed to be the reason that death rates for men are improving faster than those for women. A contributing factor might be that some physicians may still treat women with heart disease differently than men. Gender-specific issues in cardiac care have been incompletely understood.
In their American Family Physician article, the authors wrote that men are more likely to be offered treatment to prevent subsequent heart attacks. Compared with men, women are more likely to be misdiagnosed and are more likely to die of their first heart attack than men are.
Women, on average, develop heart disease at a later age than men. It is commonly thought the reason for the later onset is that estrogen, the hormone women produce during their childbearing years, provides protection.
Dr. Bedinghaus, co-author of the American Family Physician article, says:
It’s possible that women’s rate is actually the norm, and men’s rate is accelerated for some reason. Even if the estrogen produced by women’s own bodies is protective, we can’t assume that replacing hormones after menopause will be helpful to the heart.
The large national study known as the Women’s Health Initiative found that estrogen-progestin combination hormone replacement actually increases the risk for cardiovascular disease. It has not yet found an increased risk with estrogen alone, but the study is continuing.” This seems to make a case for bio-identical hormone replacement.
Not only do women develop heart disease at a later age than men on average, their symptoms may be different, Dr. Bedinghaus and her colleagues wrote,
Although women may recognize that chest pain or pressure can signal a heart attack, they may not realize that neck, jaw or shoulder pain, nausea, fatigue or shortness of breath may be important warning signs as well. In fact, where the chest pain or pressure of typical angina predicts heart disease in 80 to 99 percent of men, it is only predictive in 50 to 60 percent of women.
In a study of 515 women who had an acute heart attack, the Cleveland Clinic reports the most frequently reported symptoms were unusual fatigue, sleep disturbances, shortness of breath, indigestion, and anxiety. The majority of women (78 percent) reported at least one symptom for more than one month before their heart attack. Only 30 percent reported chest discomfort, which was described as an aching, tightness, pressure, sharpness, burning, fullness or tingling.
Women’s Symptoms of Heart Attack
By learning and recognizing the symptoms, women can become more assertive in their treatment. The most common symptoms of heart attack in women are:
• Shortness of breath
• Unusual fatigue
• Cold sweat
• Pain or pressure in the back or high chest
• Pain or discomfort in one or both arms
• Discomfort may be described as pressure, ache, or tightness; may come and go
• A burning sensation in the chest or upper abdomen
• Irregular heartbeat
Women as well as men can help prevent heart disease from starting or progressing by being aware of their risk factors. For both men and women, heredity can play a role: If your father had a heart attack before age 55 or your mother had a heart attack before 65, pay special attention to your heart health. And although symptoms and heart attacks usually don’t become apparent until midlife, prevention should start much earlier.
Reducing Your Risk Factors
For women of any age, smoking is a major risk, especially if using birth control. Smoking constricts blood flow, adds carbon monoxide to the blood, decreases the amount of oxygen in the body and accelerates atherosclerosis also known as hardening of the arteries. High cholesterol, high blood pressure (hypertension), and diabetes are also serious risk factors for heart disease.
The most common risk for heart problems in women is a sedentary lifestyle which leads to obesity. Regardless of age, incorporate more physical activity into your lifestyle. Walking is great – nearly everyone can do it, and there’s no equipment to buy or club to join. Exercise has so many benefits – alleviating depression, stress, and preventing osteoporosis — to name a few. If you suffer arthritic condition, try water exercise which takes stress off joints.