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Women & Heart Disease-Are You at Risk?

Women & Heart Disease-Are You at Risk?

Did you know an estimated 44 million women in the U.S. are affected by heart disease each year, according to the American Heart Association (AHA)? Heart disease is the No. 1 killer of women, causing 1 in 3 deaths per year—that’s nearly one death every minute.

The more you know about heart disease, the better your chance of fighting it. There are a number of misconceptions about heart disease in women—for example, many heart attack symptoms in women are not the same as those in men. By educating yourself on the symptoms, prevention, and treatment of heart disease, and taking action to educate and raise awareness of the disease, you can help more women live healthier lives.

Know the Symptoms of Heart Disease

Heart disease is a lifelong disorder that affects the blood vessels and cardiovascular system. Plaque buildup—made of several substances including cholesterol—thickens and stiffens artery walls, which can inhibit the flow of blood from the arteries to organs and tissues. When buildup narrows the arteries making it harder for blood to flow, a blood clot can form. That’s when a heart attack or stroke can occur.

During a heart attack, an artery becomes blocked, preventing oxygen and nutrients from getting to the heart. Symptoms of a heart attack in women include:

  • Breaking out in a cold sweat, nausea, or lightheadedness
  • Pain or discomfort in one or both arms, the back, neck, jaw, or stomach
  • Severe 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
  • Unusual fatigue
  • Vomiting

Chest pain or discomfort is not always as severe or even prominent a heart attack symptom in women. Sometimes, women may even have a heart attack without chest pain. Rather, women experience symptoms that are less obvious, and women sometimes blame these symptoms on stress, acid reflux, or other health conditions.

Aside from heart attacks, heart disease can cause other issues and symptoms, like heart failure or congestive heart failure. This means the heart is still working, but it’s not pumping enough blood through the body or not delivering enough oxygen. Arrhythmias or abnormal heart rhythms can occur, where the heart is beating too fast, too slow, or irregularly. This can affect the heart’s functionality and whether or not blood flows properly to other parts of the body.

Sometimes because of heart disease, the heart valves don’t close or blood leaks through, causing blood to flow backward instead. Other times, women may experience a stroke, or sudden weakness, paralysis, or numbness of the face, arms, and legs, especially on one side of the body. Additional stroke symptoms can include confusion, trouble speaking, dizziness, loss of balance or coordination, and loss of consciousness.

If you’re experiencing any of the symptoms of heart disease or think you may be experiencing a heart attack or stroke, call for emergency medical help immediately. Do not drive yourself to the hospital, unless it’s your only option.

Factors That Increase the Risk of Heart Disease in Women

Whether they’re 19 or 90, women of all ages can be affected by heart disease. For younger women, the combination of smoking and taking birth control pills can increase the risk for heart disease by 20 percent. For others, overeating that leads to obesity and high cholesterol in combination with a sedentary lifestyle can result in heart disease later in life.

Ninety percent of women have one or more risk factors for developing heart disease. Those risk factors include:

  • Smoking
  • Diabetes
  • Obesity
  • High blood pressure
  • High blood sugar
  • High BMI (body mass index)
  • High cholesterol
  • Family history of heart disease
  • History of inflammatory diseases, including rheumatoid arthritis or lupus
  • Lack of physical activity
  • Low levels of estrogen after menopause
  • Pregnancy complications like high blood pressure or diabetes during pregnancy
  • Mental stress and depression
  • Broken heart syndrome, which is caused by stressful situations that can cause severe (but often temporary) heart muscle failure

How to Prevent or Reduce the Risk of Heart Disease

The good news is you’re never too young or too old to take care of your heart. There are a number of heart-healthy choices you can start making today to prevent heart disease and reduce your risk for the disease now and later in life.

  • Eat a healthy diet of fruits and vegetables, lean proteins, whole grains, and low-fat or fat-free dairy products.
  • Follow a regular exercise routine.
  • Know the warning signs and symptoms of a heart attack, heart disease, and stroke.
  • Know your family history.
  • Lower or manage your blood sugar, blood pressure, and cholesterol.
  • Maintain a healthy weight.
  • Practice stress management techniques.
  • Quit—or don’t start—smoking.
  • Schedule regular wellness visits with your primary care provider to learn about your personal risk for heart disease.

Living with Heart Disease

If you’ve recently been diagnosed with heart disease, you’re not alone. While there’s no cure for the disease, there are things you can do each day to live the healthiest life possible. Treatment for heart disease may include lifestyle changes, medications, medical and surgical procedures, and cardiac rehabilitation.

The goals with all treatment are to:

  • Lower the risk of blood clots
  • Prevent complications
  • Reduce risk factors to slow, stop, or reverse plaque buildup
  • Relieve the symptoms of heart disease
  • Widen or bypass plaque-covered arteries

Some women need a procedure or surgery—like an angioplasty or coronary artery bypass grafting—to treat their heart disease. Others may benefit from cardiac rehab under medical supervision. This includes exercise training to strengthen the muscles and improve stamina, and education, counseling, and training to understand heart disease and develop ways to lower risk for future heart problems.

Wear Red for Women!

Frederick Regional Health System invites you to join the fight against heart disease in women. The first Friday of February—Feb. 2, 2018—is National Wear Red Day. By adding red to your wardrobe, you can help bring attention to the devastating fact that heart disease is the No. 1 killer of women.

Since National Wear Red Day began in 2003, 15 years ago, the AHA has made tremendous progress in fighting against heart disease:

  • 6 out of 10 women have changed their diets
  • Death in women has decreased by more than 30 percent over the past 10 years
  • More than one-third have lost weight
  • Nearly 300 fewer women die from heart disease and stroke each day
  • Nearly 90% of women have made at least one healthy behavior change

Here’s what you can do to raise awareness for heart disease and encourage others to do the same on Feb. 2 and all month long:

  • Wear red! Encourage friends, family, and coworkers to do the same.
  • Take a photo and share them using the hashtag #WearRed or #GoRed.
  • Join the conversation on Facebook, Instagram, and Twitter. Like and share photos and stories of others’ experiences with heart disease.
  • Talk to your friends and family about heart disease in women, and make sure you’re aware of your family history of heart disease.

By advocating and sharing your story, more women can be saved! Educate yourself and your loved ones about heart disease, and learn your own numbers today. Schedule an appointment with a healthcare provider today—call 240-566-3300.