During the month of February, the American Heart Association promotes "Go Red for Women," an educational movement that advocates for more research and increases awareness on women's heart health.
Did you know that heart disease is the No. 1 killer of women, causing one in three deaths each year? People often tend to view heart disease as an ailment that affects men more than women, yet nothing could be further from the truth. According to the American Heart Association, the number of women who die of cardiovascular disease each year far exceeds that of men and has been on the increase since 1984. The Harvard Medical School reports that by the year 2000, there were 60,000 more women dying of heart disease than men in the United States every year. Yet cardiovascular issues are so often misdiagnosed in women and serious conditions are not attended to until it is already too late. As a cardiologist, I strongly believe that awareness, knowledge and prevention are paramount when it comes to women and heart disease.
Heart Disease: The Basics
Heart disease, which is also known as cardiovascular disease, can actually be a number of diseases that prevent blood from flowing properly to the heart. The most common form of heart disease for both men and women is coronary artery disease, which happens when plaque builds up on the main artery walls making it difficult for oxygen-rich blood to reach the heart. This causes the heart to strain to supply the vital organs, which can in turn lead to heart attacks. In addition, the plaque can also dislodge from the artery walls and send blood clots travelling through the bloodstream to the brain causing a stroke.
Women and Coronary Microvascular Disease (MVD)
Coronary microvascular disease is another form of heart disease and one that affects many women in particular. Also known as coronary MVD, this condition occurs when the walls of the small arteries in the heart are damaged or diseased and plaque builds up. The tiny arteries then become narrowed and cannot not dilate properly, which prevents blood from flowing through to the heart efficiently. The unnerving thing about MVD is that the plaque does not often show up in standard cardiovascular tests. Therefore, many women are misdiagnosed and the condition is not treated, which puts the patient at risk of a heart attacks. The results of the Women's Ischemia Syndrome Evaluation (WISE) revealed that this is a very common scenario for women suffering from heart disease.
Causes of Heart Disease in Women
The major risk factors for heart disease in both men and women are lifestyle-related and include obesity, lack of exercise, smoking and stress. Family history also plays a huge role, as does diabetes, high blood pressure and elevated LDL cholesterol levels. However, for women there may be additional risk factors as well. Women are more likely to develop heart disease after menopause, which many researchers believe is due to a decrease in estrogen and an increase in cholesterol, blood pressure and abdominal fat. In addition, the risk of heart disease may be higher for women who smoke than men and for women suffering from depression.
Symptoms of Heart Attacks in Women
Another reason that heart disease is so often misdiagnosed or undetected in women is that many women experience very atypical symptoms. For example, many men feel sharp intense chest pains (also known as angina) when they are having a heart attack. For women, this is not always the case. According to the American Heart Association, the warning signs of a heart attack for women could also include:
• Chest, back, shoulder, neck or jaw pains.
• Pressure or pain in the lower half of the chest or upper abdomen
• Unexplained fatigue
• Shortness of breath
• Dizziness or fainting
• Nausea or vomiting
• Breaking out in a cold sweat
Heart Disease Prevention
You can greatly reduce your chances of developing heart disease by making a few healthy changes in your life. Start by eating a healthy diet that is made up of whole foods and low in saturated fats, salt and cholesterol. Try to exercise every day or at least every second day to get the blood circulating and maintain a healthy weight. Quit smoking and manage your stress levels with meditation or by doing things that are relaxing and enjoyable for you. Finally, speak with a health care professional if you think you are at risk for heart disease and don't hesitate to contact a doctor immediately if you are experiencing any of the symptoms of a heart attack.
For more information about heart disease and healthy living, please read my comprehensive book on heart health, Your Vibrant Heart: Restoring Health, Strength and Spirit from the Body's Core.
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My new book, Your Vibrant Heart, launched on February 4th, and it includes many more insights about how to nurture and care for your heart on both a physical and emotional level. I encourage you to order your copy today at http://www.yourvibrantheart.com/book