Although it is traditionally thought to be more prevalent in men, heart disease is the No. 1 killer of women in the United States, out numbering the number of women who die of breast cancer. In fact, according to the American Heart Association (AHA), more women die of the disease than men, with one in three women dying of heart disease each year. Because the number of women diagnosed with heart disease each year continues to rise, there are ample opportunities to develop preventive strategies aimed at identifying and treating women with heart disease.
The most common presenting symptoms of a heart attack for both men and women can include crushing chest pain that radiates to the jaw or arms, but women don’t always experience typical heart attack symptoms . Women can experience alternative symptoms demonstrates as shortness of breath, fatigue or gastrointestinal upset.
Because heart attacks can be more difficult to diagnose in women, it is extremely important for patients to know the particular symptoms that they may experience. Although some do feel chest pain, women can experience different symptoms unrelated to chest pain, such as:
• Neck, jaw, shoulder, upper back or abdominal discomfort
• Shortness of breath
• Right arm pain
• Nausea or vomiting
• Lightheadedness or dizziness
• Unusual fatigue
It is especially important for women to pay close attention to their health and involve their physician when they experience any of these symptoms.
Traditional risk factors for heart disease include high cholesterol, tobacco use, hypertension and obesity and post-menopausal status. Diabetic women are at a significantly higher risk for developing a heart attack and their overall mortality is higher compared to men. New risk factors for heart disease in women are emerging and include chronic inflammatory states such as lupus and rheumatoid arthritis. Ongoing research will hopefully yield important information in the future to help guide our therapies and target women who are at the highest risk for developing heart disease.
Women can decrease their risk of heart disease by first identifying their risk factors and treating them aggressively. Annual evaluations of risk factors during a visit with your doctor can identify women who are at the highest risk for heart disease. Modifying risk factors to reduce the risk of heart disease can include treatment of hypertension, diabetes and high cholesterol.
Other lifestyle changes in diet and physical activity also play key roles in preventing heart disease. It is essential for women to take the time to develop exercise plans with their doctors’s guidance and engage in physical activity five days a week. Regular exercise can significantly improve a person’s quality of life, leading to a noticeable feeling of revitalization while strengthening physical and mental health.
As a cardiologist with HealthCare Partners Cardiology, I advise all women to remain aware of their bodies. Ask your physician about routine cholesterol and blood pressure tests. These can help identify risk factors by offering clues about your heart health. Talk to your physician if you have any developing symptoms and consider visiting a HealthCare Partners cardiologist.