Heart disease No. 1 killer of women

Experts offer information about risk factors and ways to reduce your risk of heart disease.

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By R'becca Groff, for The Gazette

Somewhere along the way heart disease got a reputation as a man’s disease.

It’s not.

In fact, heart disease is the No. 1 killer of women, causing one in three deaths each year, according to Go Red For Women, a campaign created by the American Heart Association in 2003 to educate women about heart disease symptoms, risks and prevention.

Read on to learn more about heart disease in women and ways that you can reduce your risk:

Are heart disease symptoms different for women than they are for men?

“The American Heart Association is really trying to get it out to the public that women’s heart attack symptoms are very similar to those for men,” says Sue Dawson, clinical outcomes and research nurse with the female cardiac support group at Mercy Medical Center in Cedar Rapids. “It’s just that women have never believed that heart disease was their primary concern. They were more concerned about breast cancer and other illnesses instead.”

Heart disease is a broad term used for a range of diseases that affect your heart. It’s often used to refer to cardiovascular disease, a condition that involves narrow or blocked blood vessels that can lead to a heart attack or stroke.

The signs of a heart attack, for both women and men, include uncomfortable pressure, squeezing, fullness or pain in the center of the chest that lasts more than a few minutes, or goes away and comes back. Shortness of breath, with or without the chest discomfort as well as pain or discomfort in one or both arms, through the back, neck, jaw or stomach area are also indicative of a heart incident. Other signs include nausea, lightheadedness or breaking out in a cold sweat.

But, as with men, women’s most common heart attack symptom is chest pain or discomfort.

“Heart disease is indeed the leading cause of death in women in America,” Dawson says. “Data from the CDC (Center for Disease Control) shows that back in 1984 more women were dying from heart disease than men … that trend has continued, although there has been a lot of effort put into this awareness campaign in the last five years.”

What are the risk factors?

Genetics enter into the picture, of course, so it is important for women to understand the definition of early family history. It includes parents, siblings and even children — heart disease can strike in offspring even before it strikes the parent. If a strong family history for heart disease is present, it’s advisable to modify risk factors that can be controlled. These include stress levels, diet and exercise regimens, says Stephanie Cooper, nurse coordinator of Mercy Medical Center’s female cardiac support group.

“There are a lot of theories out there, like post-menopausal women no longer have the hormonal protection against heart disease, but women clearly are living more stressful lives, which plays a part in heart disease,” Cooper says. “Women are out in the workforce more than they ever were before and are under a lot of stress. They are busy taking care of the kids, getting ready for work and making sure the house is clean and that everyone else is taken care of first — before themselves.”

How can you reduce your risk of heart disease?

“The first part is awareness. Just knowing that they need to monitor themselves if they have a number of the risk factors is important,” Cooper says. Women should know their cholesterol numbers, which include LDLs (low-density lipids), HDLs (high-density lipids) and triglyceride levels. A simple, fasting blood test will provide such data.

Regular exercise — even just walking 30 minutes a day — can lower heart disease risk. Eating a healthful diet is another big factor.

And both Dawson and Cooper are adamant that the No. 1 thing a person can do to reduce their risk for heart disease is to refrain from using tobacco.

“A person just cannot smoke, and we lay that out there for our patients,” Cooper says.

This story originally appeared in the July 14, 2013 Women’s Health special section.


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