Heart Disease, the Silent Killer of Women

By Anita Marlay, RD, LD

February is “Heart Health Awareness Month.” Many Americans wear red to celebrate the occasion and to help increase awareness of the danger of heart disease, especially for women.

Some Staggering Facts About Heart Disease

Worldwide, 8.6 million women die from heart disease each year. Heart disease is the leading cause of death in American women, six times more than breast cancer. There are 8 million women in the United States currently living with heart disease. Among women who experience a heart attack, 42 percent die within one year, compared to 24 percent of men. Since 1984, more women than men have died each year from heart disease. After the age of 40, 32 percent of women have a one in three chance of developing coronary heart disease in their lifetime. A heart attack is twice as likely to be fatal among women younger than 50, compared to men.

Unfortunately, the diagnosis, prognosis and even management of heart disease in women is not only very different but also more challenging than it is in men. One reason is that in men plaque distributes in clumps, whereas in women it tends to distribute more evenly throughout the artery walls. This may be misinterpreted as normal in angiographic tests.

Also, women tend to wait longer than men to go to an emergency room because they often do not experience the classic symptoms associated with a heart attack. And women often delay seeking care for heart disease symptoms, which can delay diagnosis and appropriate treatment. When they eventually do seek help, they are less frequently referred for diagnostic catheterization than men. This results in more women dying within a few weeks of their first heart attack.

The most common symptom for heart attacks in both sexes is chest pain. However, many women do not experience such pain when they are having a heart attack. In fact, 43 percent of women who had an acute myocardial infarction, or heart attack, reported no chest pain and were discharged without treatment.

Seventy-one percent of women experiencing early warning signs of heart attack report sudden onset of extreme weakness that is often mistaken as the flu. Nearly two-thirds of the deaths from heart attacks in women occur among those who have no history of chest pain. Women tend to present atypical symptoms, such as shortness of breath, weakness, unusual fatigue, back, neck or shoulder pain, nausea or indigestion. And with increasingly younger women suffering from heart attacks, these “atypical” symptoms are often ignored.

Meanwhile, the identified risk factors for heart disease in women that can be modified include the following:

Abnormal lipid levels: Increased LDL cholesterol increases the risk of coronary heart disease.

Diabetes: An estimated 18.3 million Americans have diagnosed diabetes. Another 88.6 million are pre-diabetic or remain undiagnosed. Diabetes more than doubles the risk of heart attack and doubles the risk of a second heart attack in women, but not in men.

Healthy Diet: Less than one percent of American adults meet the definition of an “ideal healthy diet.”

Hypertension: Women with high blood pressure have 3.5 times the risk of developing coronary heart disease than those with normal blood pressure.

BMI: Overall, 68 percent of U.S. adults are overweight or obese. Obesity leads to an increased risk of premature death from cardiovascular problems.

Physical activity: Only 20.7 percent of adults meet the recommendations for physical activity.

Smoking: Women who smoke risk having a heart attack 19 years earlier than non-smoking women.

Stress: Especially marital stress in women, increases the likelihood of a heart attack.

What can you do to lower your risk of heart disease?

Know your numbers: Start by getting your lipid levels and fasting blood glucose drawn. Get your blood pressure taken. This will be the first step to understanding what you need to do to make improvements.

Eat a heart healthy diet: Choose lean meats, low-fat dairy products, whole grains and lots of fruits and vegetables. Avoid high-fat foods and cooking methods. Limit your use of processed foods and reduce your intake of salt and high sodium foods.

Lose weight: Calories count! Cut back on your portions and keep a food log to help with weight loss.

Get active: Strive for 30 minutes of exercise at least five days a week. Sixty minutes is even better. Be sure to get your heart rate up.

Quit smoking: This is the single most important change you can make.

De-stress: Try meditation, yoga, exercise or do whatever it takes to eliminate as much stress as possible in your life.

Anita Marlay, RD, LD is a Registered Dietitian and cardiac rehab dietitian at Lake Regional Health System in Osage Beach, Missouri, where she helps patients make lifestyle changes for heart health. She writes a weekly nutrition column for the Lake Sun Leader and is a frequent contributor to other magazines in her area. As a Kids Eat Right member, Anita also provides nutrition education to parents and children through the local Trim Kids program. She can be reached at amarlay@lakeregional.com.

The articles written by guest contributors are the sole responsibility of the individual writers in terms of factual accuracy and opinion and do not necessarily reflect the views of the publisher of this blog.

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