More women die each year from heart disease than any other cause, but only about half of women realize the risk.
“Although heart disease is often thought of as a ‘man’s disease’, it’s not,” says Julie Pope, director of heart and vascular services at Tidelands Health. “Heart disease is an equal-opportunity killer.”
Heart disease includes a variety of conditions such as coronary artery disease, when plaque builds up along arterial walls; heart rhythm problems, commonly called arrhythmias; congestive heart failure, which occurs when the heart isn’t pumping blood properly, heart valve disease and more.
The good news is many types of heart disease can be prevented through lifestyle choices.
Here are eight things women should know about heart disease and heart health:
1. Women can experience different heart attack symptoms than men
Many people assume a heart attack feels like crushing pain centered on the left side of the chest. That’s frequently not the case in women, whose symptoms can be more subtle and harder to pinpoint.
For example, a woman may not have chest pain at all during a heart attack. “Instead, she may experience pain in her upper back or a feeling of fullness in the lower chest and upper abdomen, not unlike indigestion,” Pope says.
Symptoms of a heart attack in women often include:
- Pressure, squeezing, fullness or pain in the center of the chest. It may last for several minutes, or it may stop and resume later
- Pain in one or both arms, the back or upper back, neck, jaw, throat or stomach
- Extreme fatigue
- Shortness of breath, with or without chest pain
- Nausea/vomiting, cold sweats, lightheadedness or fainting
If you are concerned you are suffering a heart attack or another heart-related emergency, call 911.
2. High blood pressure is a significant risk factor for heart disease
There are usually no physical symptoms of high blood pressure or hypertension, but it’s important for women to monitor their blood pressure to ensure their readings stay within a safe range.
“If your blood pressure is consistently high, you should consult your doctor. Lifestyle modifications and medications can help,” Pope says.
Consistently high blood pressure can damage your blood vessels, leading to accumulation of LDL (low-density lipoprotein), sometimes called “bad” cholesterol, on the arterial walls.
3. Heart disease risks can increase after menopause
Women may be at increased risk for heart disease following menopause, in part because of a decline in estrogen, which is thought to provide some protection against heart disease.
Menopause also typically occurs at an age when other risk factors for heart disease increase and at a time in life when poor lifestyle choices made our younger years begin to result in health complications.
4. Smoking and obesity are leading causes of heart disease
Smoking and obesity are major contributors to heart disease. Women who smoke are more than twice as likely to have a heart attack or stroke. Smoking can cause plaque to collect in your blood vessels, lower your good cholesterol levels and may cause blood clots, all of which can lead to heart problems. Likewise, being 30 pounds or more overweight or having a body mass index of greater than 24.9 puts you at increased risk of heart disease.
5. Pregnancy complications may be a sign of increased heart disease risk
Research indicates women who had gestational diabetes, high blood pressure during pregnancy or a pre-term baby may be at increased risk of cardiovascular disease later in life.
“Be sure to tell your doctor if you experienced any pregnancy-related complications, even if your last pregnancy was 20 or 30 years ago. Pregnancy is like a stress test for your body and can be a good indicator of what to expect later in life,” Pope says.
6. Get adequate sleep
Like the rest of your body, your heart benefits from a good night’s sleep. It’s important to get at least seven hours of sleep each night to ensure your cardiovascular system is getting the rest it needs. If you’re not sleeping well due to stress, sleep apnea or another reason, consult your doctor.
7. Watch your numbers
If you’re diabetic, keeping your blood sugar in check is crucial to heart health. Likewise, be sure to keep track of your cholesterol levels.
- LDL cholesterol makes up most of your body’s cholesterol. High levels of LDL cholesterol raises your risk for heart disease and stroke.
- HDL (high-density lipoprotein), or “good” cholesterol, absorbs cholesterol and carries it back to the liver. The liver then flushes it from the body. High levels of HDL cholesterol can lower your risk for heart disease and stroke.
8. Get moving
Studies have repeatedly shown that regular exercise is crucial to heart health.
“Physical activity doesn’t have to be complicated or expensive. Brisk walking, for example, is a great way to get the activity your heart needs to be healthy,” Pope says.