There is a common misconception that men suffer from heart conditions more often than women. However, this simply isn’t true. According to the American Heart Association, cardiovascular disease is the number one killer of women in the United States. AHA statistics show that 90% of women in the United States will have one or multiple risk factors for heart disease at some point in their lives.
Yet despite the prevalence of risk factors amongst women, the warning signs are often undetected until it is too late. Moreover, symptoms that are detected are sometimes misdiagnosed. This is because women often exhibit different symptoms than men, and these symptoms can be mistaken as signs of other conditions.
The good news is that the majority of cardiovascular conditions in women are preventable. If you are aware of the causes and symptoms of heart disease, then you can make healthy choices to protect yourself and prevent life-threatening episodes. In honor of American Heart Month in February, these are some things every woman should know about heart health.
What is Heart Disease?
Heart disease is a blanket term that refers to any disorder that affects the heart. There are actually a number of different forms of heart disease. The most common form, and the one that causes the most heart attacks, is coronary artery disease (CAD).
CAD happens when plaque builds up on the walls of the arteries and prevents oxygen-rich blood from flowing properly to the heart. This causes the heart to strain harder to try and pump blood to the organs. Too much strain can cause a heart attack. The plaque can also dislodge and travel through the bloodstream to the brain, which can cause a stroke.
Another form of heart disease that is more common in women than men is coronary microvascular disease (MVD). This happens when tiny arteries in the heart become damaged or diseased and plaque builds up along the walls. This narrows the arteries, making it hard to dilate and facilitate proper blood flow.
What Causes Heart Disease in Women?
There are many risk factors that can lead to heart disease, most of which are controllable. Lifestyle is the biggest factor. Smoking, stress, obesity, lack of exercise, alcohol abuse, and unhealthy eating habits can all increase your risk of developing heart disease. High blood pressure and cholesterol are other manageable risk factors.
Risk factors that are impossible or difficult to control include genetics or a family history of heart disease. Diabetes can cause complications that put strain on the heart. Causes that are unique to women include preeclampsia during pregnancy and menopause. Researchers believe that hormonal changes can increase the risk of heart disease by increasing blood pressure and cholesterol.
Unfortunately, some risk factors are much more likely to result in heart disease for women than they are for men. For example, women with diabetes are at higher risk of heart disease than men. The same is true for women who smoke and those who have depression or metabolic syndrome (a group of conditions that lead to cardiac issues).
What are the Symptoms of a Heart Attack for Women?
One of the most important things women should know about heart attacks is that the symptoms can manifest differently in men and women. The most common signs of a heart attack for men are sharp chest pains, shortness of breath, and nausea. Women may also experience these symptoms, but can also exhibit other warning signs or even be asymptomatic.
These are some symptoms that women might experience prior to or during a cardiac episode or heart attack:
- Chest pain (although not always)
- Pain in the neck, jaw, shoulders, or back
- Shortness of breath
- Pain or pressure in the abdomen or lower chest area
- Unexplained fatigue
- Anxiety or a sense of dread
- Nausea and vomiting
- Cold sweats
How Can I Reduce the Risk of Heart Disease?
In many cases, all it takes are a few lifestyle changes to reduce your chances of developing heart disease. By being aware of the risk factors and making healthy choices, you can avoid becoming a statistic. Plus, those choices will improve other areas of your life as well. These are a few things you can do to prevent heart disease:
It’s no secret that smoking kills. Even a few cigarettes a day can double your risk of having a heart attack. Quitting smoking probably won’t be easy, but it’s essential for your heart health. If you’re struggling to quit for good, consider speaking to a medical professional and seeing what options are available to you.
Eat Nutritious Foods
Be mindful about what you eat on a daily basis. Foods that are high in salt, saturated fats, and sugar can wreak havoc on your cardiovascular system. On the other hand, whole foods like fruits, vegetables, whole grains, and lean meats provide your body with the nutrients it needs to function properly and maintain optimal health.
Exercise gets the heart pumping and your blood flowing. Plus, it helps with healthy weight loss, which also lowers your risk of heart disease. If you’re new to working out, start small and gradually work your way up. Try to get in at least two or three workouts a week. Need motivation? Try joining a class or team up with a workout buddy.
Manage Your Stress
Stress is often called the silent killer because it has so many negative effects on the body that can lead to life-threatening diseases like heart disease. For example, chronic stress can cause increased blood pressure, inflammation, and irregular heart beats. Some ways to combat stress include meditation, exercise, and breathing techniques.
Consult with a Medical Professional
Sometimes it can be difficult to identify what’s going on in our own bodies. A medical professional can check your blood pressure, cholesterol, and other aspects of your health to determine whether you have any risk factors for heart disease or if there are any areas you can work on to improve your overall health.
Where Can I Find a Cardiologist Near Me?
Dr. Cynthia Thaik is a Harvard-trained cardiologist who combines state-of-the-art technology with holistic practices to provide comprehensive, whole-person healthcare. She has been serving the Burbank and Greater Los Angeles area for over 20 years, and is known as one of the leading heart specialists in the area.
Whether you’ve already experienced a cardiovascular episode, suspect you may be at risk, or are simply interested in learning more about how to protect and maintain a healthy heart, Dr, Thaik can help. She also specializes in traditional and naturopathic remedies, weight loss, nutrition, mindfulness and lifestyle management.