11/13/2012 12:13 pm ET Updated Dec 06, 2017

Women and the Prevention of Heart Disease

My father experienced his first heart attack at the age of 42 in 1963. He was a very strong, dynamic and accomplished businessman, loving father and husband. In those days, doctors could only prescribe a stringent, low-fat diet, the use of margarine instead of butter1 and exercise. There were no medications available to clear or slow the clogging of his arteries. At 48, Dad was sent to Houston where Dr. Denton Cooley performed open-heart surgery on him. I remember our family, crowded around my Dad's bedside, while listening to Dr. Cooley explain that high cholesterol results in clogged arteries and that high cholesterol was hereditary. I was a young teenager at the time, feeling invincible and not making the connection that this news had any bearing on my life in any way.

After the surgery when we arrived back in Tucson, my parents insisted that I have my cholesterol checked. When I heard the results, I thought the lab had confused my fathers test results with mine. They indicated that my cholesterol level was alarmingly high. I felt great -- like a normal, energetic teenager. Instantly, my life changed, as I immediately connected my father's health issues with my own sense of wellness. As I watched my father heal from his surgery, the value of good health became crystal clear to me. The health benefits from my father's surgery lasted 10 years. Then, the angina came back, and Dad returned to Houston. This time, the doctors sent him home because his weakened body could not handle surgery. My family hoped for a miracle solution that never came. My world crumbled as I watched my Dad's health continue to deteriorate. Sadly, my beloved father died of arteriosclerosis and heart disease at 58 years young.

I am living proof that a heart-healthy lifestyle and the effective use of preventative medicines are as important as hereditary predispositions. Since that long-ago, life-shifting intervention by Dr. Cooley, I have been proactive about my health.

Did you know that heart disease is the #1 killer of women in the United States? In the United States, a woman suffers from a heart attack every 90 seconds.2 However, most of these heart attacks could be avoided if women made better heart-healthy choices such as eating a balanced diet, exercising regularly and not smoking. After menopause, women are more at risk for developing heart disease partly because our bodies produce less estrogen. Women who go through early menopause either naturally or through medically induction (as a result of a hysterectomy or medication) are twice as likely to develop heart disease as women of the same age who have not yet gone through menopause. Make certain that you have a yearly physical that includes a heart-healthy screening. Your risks of heart disease may increase if you are overweight, smoke or if you have high blood pressure, elevated blood cholesterol levels or diabetes. To help understand your own personal risks of heart disease and what you can do to avoid it, reach out to your physician and discuss the following possible tests to evaluate your risks:

Know the symptoms of a heart attack for women, as they present differently than in men. They can be more subtle than chest pains. Women often have blockage not only in their main arteries, but also in the smaller arteries that supply blood to the heart. Take note of the following symptoms:

  • Unusual heavy pressure or weight on your chest
  • Sharp upper body pain in your neck, shoulder, upper back or abdominal discomfort
  • Severe shortness of breath
  • Lightheadedness, nausea or vomiting (Rosie O'Donnell's recent experience)
  • Sweating (cold sweats -- not like a hot flash)
  • Lightheadedness or dizziness
  • Unusual fatigue

What can you to do to be proactive about your health?

  • Do not smoke and stay away from secondhand smoke
  • Exercise -- find something you like: walk, bike, hike, play tennis. You name it -- just keep moving!
  • Eat a healthy diet rich in fruits, veggies and fiber -- limit saturated fats, trans fats & sodium
  • Drink alcohol in moderation
  • Maintain a healthy weight

Thanks to my experience with my father, I developed an early awareness of my cardiovascular health risks. This knowledge inspired me to a heart-healthy lifestyle. I also have continued to educate myself on the subject and have benefited from scientific breakthroughs in treatment and prevention. Because of this, I recently received a wonderful gift. I celebrated my 59th birthday.

Remember my motto: Reaching out is IN! Suffering in silence is OUT!

Tell me: What's stopping you from living a heart-healthy lifestyle?

I love heart health!

  • 1The butter vs. margarine debate continues, but the current recommendation from the American Heart Association is soft, trans-fat-free spreads instead of regular butter or stick margarine.
  • Questions to ask your doctor
  • Learn more about heart health for women at Go Red for Women
  • Mayo Clinic gives heart health tips for women
  • AARP blogs about the #1 killer in women
  • 2Don't Miss a Beat, heart attack information for women from

About Ellen Dolgen

Ellen Dolgen is a Health and Wellness Advocate, Menopause Awareness Expert, Author, Speaker, and health blogger.

Ellen is the author of Shmirshky: The Pursuit of Hormone Happiness -- a cut-to-the-chase book on perimenopause and menopause that's filled with crucial information, helpful guides and hilarious and heartfelt stories. Known for her humor, compassion and sassy personality, Ellen has appeared on numerous television and radio broadcasts, including: The Rachael Ray Show, The Doctors, Oprah Radio, Playboy Radio, "Tell Me More" on NPR, Doctor Radio and dozens of other regional and national media outlets. Ellen is a frequent guest on the popular radio show, "Broadminded," on Sirius XM Radio (Stars XM 107) and is a regular contributor on Huff/Post 50 along with blogging for many leading women's health sites. Ellen has dedicated herself to women's wellness through a wide breadth of activities ranging from being a founding board member of the UCSD Student Wellness Center, working with pharmaceutical companies in helping them to effectively address women's health needs, serving on hospital advisory boards and advocating for cardiovascular health.

Ellen's motto is: Reaching out is IN! Suffering in silence is OUT!

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