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Women and Heart Disease

The “Go Red for Women” movement of the American Heart Association is an effort to educate both professionals and the public to the risks, prevention and affects of heart disease in women. In the past, most of what was known about heart disease was from findings gathered from men with the disease. Today doctors know much more about how heart disease effects women and these findings are very different from what is seen in men. Although heart disease is most often thought of as a cause of death for men, more women (52.1%) actually die from heart disease each year. Other findings tell us that one in three women have some form of heart or vascular disease and there are 8.4 million women alive today with a history of heart attack, chest pain, or both. Fortunately women can take action to reduce their risks for heart disease and learn to recognize early signs and symptoms.

Symptoms of Heart Attack in Women

National Institutes of Health studies show that women usually have different physical signs or symptoms before actually having a heart attack. In a study of over 500 women, 95% said that they had signs a month or more before their attack. The signs reported before a heart attack included: sleep disturbance (48%); indigestion (39%); and anxiety (35%). The most common signs reported during the heart attack were extreme fatigue (70%) and shortness of breath (42%). Other signs reported during a heart attack included weakness, sweating and dizziness.  Surprisingly only 30% reported chest pain as a sign. The signs and symptoms of heart disease and heart attack in women are far more subtle than the often reported crushing chest pain seen in men. As a result, women tend to show up in emergency rooms after a great deal of damage has been done because their signs are not typically associated with heart attack.

Risk Factors for Women and Heart Disease

The usual risk factors of high blood pressure, high cholesterol, lack of exercise and obesity play an important part in the development of heart disease for both men and women. In addition, there are other factors that might play a role in development of heart disease in women. These include: metabolic syndrome (a combination of fat around the abdomen, with high blood pressure, blood sugar and triglycerides); mental stress and depression; smoking; and low levels of estrogen after menopause.

Reduce the Risk for Heart Disease

There are several lifestyle changes that women can make to reduce their risk for developing heart disease. First, exercise 30-60 minutes daily. Exercise should be moderate, such as walking at a brisk pace. If you can’t complete your exercise in one session, you may break it up in 10-15 minute sessions.

Next, maintain a healthy weight. A healthy weight varies person to person. A body mass index (BMI) of 25 or higher increases risk for heart disease. Loosing just 10 pounds can help reduce risk. Quit or don’t start smoking. Smoking is a greater risk for heart disease in women than in men. Eat a diet that is low in saturated fat, cholesterol and salt. Finally, appropriately take prescribed medications for high blood pressure, high cholesterol and diabetes. Check with your doctor before taking daily low dose aspirin or omega-3 fatty acid supplements.

Deaths from heart disease in women will only decline if women become more aggressive in managing their risk factors and start recognizing the signs of impending heart attack. Early recognition and treatment are essential for survival. Women respond well to clot-busting drugs and medications. However, they must seek help early to receive the benefit of these treatments.   Protect yourself and/or the women in your life today by sharing information concerning reducing risk, recognizing signs and seeking early treatment for heart disease.

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