From the Heart

Much of the information about women's health and aging focuses on breast cancer. And it’s true 1 in 8 women will develop breast cancer in their lifetime. But what should really concern women is that heart disease accounts for 1 in 3 deaths in women.

Heart disease should not be thought of as a "man’s disease" any longer by the medical community nor by women. If you take away anything from this article, it should be that heart disease is the #1 killer of women

A heart attack occurs when blood flow, which delivers oxygen to the heart, is reduced, limited, or completely restricted. When the coronary arteries are narrowed due to high cholesterol, high blood pressure or diabetes, blood flow to the heart is compromised which can ultimately lead to a heart attack.

Routine screening for many health issues is recommended throughout a woman's lifetime: Pap smears are first performed at 21 years to check for cervical cancer; mammograms begin at 40 years to check for breast cancer; and colonoscopies begin at 50 years to check for colon cancer. But even though it affects 33 percent of women, there are really no set guidelines for screening women for heart disease!

Warning signs

Many of us think we know what to look for when it comes to a heart attack. But did you know that the common warning signs of heart disease are generally far more common in men? The symptoms women experience can be very different.

Classic symptoms of a heart attack include pain in your chest, shortness of breath and cold sweats, but this is not always the case in women. Women often present with pain, pressure or discomfort in the chest, but it may not be severe or significant. Women may also have right arm pain, nausea or vomiting, sweating, dizziness or fatigue. A silent heart attack, which affects both genders, can present with less specific signs including flu-like symptoms, indigestion, fatigue, jaw or upper back or arm pain. These types of signs are more common in women.

Risk Factors for Heart Disease include:

  • High blood pressure (140/90 – either one of those numbers consistently is a risk factor)
  • High Lipid panel (Cholesterol)
  • Obesity BMI>30
  • Tobacco Use
  • Genetic influences
  • Physical Inactivity

Test to diagnose heart disease include:

  • Exercise stress test
  • Holter monitor-24 hour testing of your electrocardiogram (ECG)

How to be proactive against heart disease

1. Eat a Healthy Diet

A diet focused on fresh fruits, vegetables, whole grains and fish, limited alcohol intake and little red meat similar to the Mediterranean diet has proven health benefits that include:

  • Reduced risk of cardiovascular events
  • Lowered risk of Type 2 Diabetes
  • Reduced risk of a stroke
  • Improved cognitive function
  • Slowed progression of carotid plaque
  • Cardiovascular protection with its reputation for lowering total carotid plaque, LDL cholesterol, HDL cholesterol, triglycerides, blood pressure and blood sugar.

The Mediterranean diet is associated with the highest life expectancy and lowest heart disease rates in the world.

2. Regular Exercise

It’s been shown that you need to exercise 2.5 hours a week for optimal health. A study at Cleveland Clinic showed that only 34 percent of Americans were aware of this benchmark, with 40 percent getting less exercise than they should.

3. Avoid Obesity and being overweight

The rise in obesity in the US by 27 percent is a key factor in increased risk for Type 2 Diabetes which affects more than 12 million women. Hispanics are at twice the risk. Women want to maintain a healthy body weight with a BMI Obesity is directly associated with high blood pressure, high cholesterol and diabetes, which all increase risks for heart disease.

4. Managing High Lipid Profile

Keeping your LDL, also known as "the bad cholesterol," low with healthy lifestyle choices and medication is very important for your heart health. You can improve your lipid profile by limiting saturated fats, increasing fresh fruits and vegetables, limiting salt intake to less than 1 gram/day, reducing alcohol consumption, increasing physical activity and keeping your BMI below 25.

Recommended levels of lipids include the following:

  • LDL<100mg/dl (bad cholesterol)
  • HDL>50mg/dl (good cholesterol
  • Triglycerides <150mg/dl (most common type of fat in the body)
  • Total cholesterol/ HDL ratio should be below 5:1

5. Maintain Good Blood Pressure

A healthy blood pressures should be less than 120/80mmHG. If your blood pressure readings are consistently higher than 140/90, medication is recommended.

  • 6. Taking Baby Aspirin if Indicated

  • If you have any evidence of heart disease, taking low dose aspirin (75 mg daily) is recommended, but of course, check with your physician first. If you don’t have any evidence of heart disease you do not need to take baby aspirin.

7. Omega-3 Fatty Acids

Women who have high total cholesterol or high LDL levels are recommended to increase their Omega-3 fatty acids through dietary fatty fish or supplements. If you have heart disease or other risk factors, you should take 1 gram/day of Omega-3 fish oil. If you are healthy or do not have any risk factors for heart disease, it is still recommended that you take 300-500 mg of Omega 3-fish oil every day.

Women need to be educated and proactive in finding out their risks of developing heart disease. There has been improvement based on a recent study which found that 56 percent of women knew heart disease was the #1 cause of death amongst women compared to only 30 percent awareness in 1997, but that still leaves too many women unprepared.

The medical community needs to do more in educating younger women on ways of reducing their risk factors for future heart health protection. Screening women for smoking, obesity, high blood pressure, high cholesterol and diabetes should be a part of women’s annual medical assessment.

Here’s the crucial take home message: Increasing your awareness and taking preventive steps to reduce your risk is your best protection against the #1 killer of women.

Click here to discover your risk of heart disease.

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