health matters

The scary, but serious, truth about women and heart disease

The scary, but serious, truth about women and heart disease

Austin Photo Set: News_Jeff Kreisberg_women heart health_dec 2011_holding heart
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If I told you that, every year, about the same number of women under the age of 55 die from heart attacks as from breast cancer, would you be surprised?

If you are, you’re not alone; most women and many of the doctors who care for them are clueless that a woman’s heart can pose such a huge health risk. Young women with heart disease account for nearly 40,000 hospitalizations and 16,000 deaths each year — ranking it as the leading cause of death in this age group. Overall, one in four women die from cardiovascular disease, compared to one in 30 from breast cancer. But I haven't seen any ribbons or car magnets highlighting this cause.

If you have a family history of heart disease, if you smoke, have high blood pressure, high blood cholesterol levels,  or diabetes, or if you are obese, you are at increased risk for heart attack. Also, if you have had pre-eclampsia during pregnancy, your chance of a heart attack more than doubles later in life.

Heart attacks don't just happen to post-menopausal women. Women in their 30s and 40s are increasingly developing heart disease, so be on the lookout for these risk factors and get screened and treated. Also, many physicians fail to recognize the importance of these risk factors in young people, so we, as patients, must be proactive when it comes to our health. The longer these risk factors wreak havoc on our bodies, the worse our heart and vascular health will be.

Have your blood pressure checked every two years, beginning at 18 years of age. High blood pressure is 140/90 or higher and, if left untreated, can cause stroke, heart attack, kidney and eye problems and heart failure. Know your numbers! Blood pressure can be managed with medications.

And, beginning at age 20, have your cholesterol checked regularly if:

  • You use tobacco.
  • You are obese.
  • You have diabetes or high blood pressure.
  • You have a personal history of heart disease or blocked arteries.
  • A man in your family had a heart attack before age 50 or a woman, before age 60.

High cholesterol can be managed by lifestyle changes, like eating healthier and exercise, or medication.

Be aware of the symptoms of a heart attack. Many of us expect the stereotypical signs: clutching chest, gasping for air and screaming out in pain while dropping to a knee. Although chest pain is the most common symptom of heart attack, women are more likely than men to experience other symptoms such as shortness of breath, unusual fatigue, abdominal discomfort, nausea and pain in the back or jaw. Patients and doctors sometimes mistake these symptoms as panic attacks, fatigue, sweating, indigestion and over-exertion and often wait until it’s too late to get treatment. Because of this, twice as many women than men die in the hospital following a heart attack.

Many women don’t seek treatment with these symptoms because they question whether they’re real, or they are embarrassed by their symptoms, they are not taken seriously by their doctor, they don’t have the time due to family demands or they fear they’re symptoms are real and don’t want to know they have a life-threatening condition.

These symptoms won’t just go away on their own. You know best when you’re not feeling well, so listen to your body and get the proper treatment. Ignoring them may cost you your life.