Living Well

Heart Health: Women and Cardiovascular Disease

Sylvia Oleck, MD
Heart Health: Women and Cardiovascular Disease

February is American Heart Month. During this month it is important to raise awareness about heart disease and how people can prevent it.

Cardiovascular disease is the leading cause of death among men and women in the United States. Among women, it takes more lives than all cancers combined. One of three women die of cardiovascular disease. In comparison, one of 32 female deaths are attributed to breast cancer.

One woman dies nearly every 80 seconds from heart disease and stroke. With all these facts, sadly the Centers of Disease Control and Prevention’s Women and Heart Disease Fact Sheet shows that only about 54% of women realize heart disease is their number one killer.

What is Cardiovascular Disease?

Cardiovascular disease can refer to several conditions, such as heart disease, heart attack, stroke, heart failure, arrhythmia, and heart valve problems. Heart disease can occur through a process called atherosclerosis which is a condition that develops when plaque is built up in the walls of the arteries. Plaque buildup can make it harder for blood to flow through the arteries, which can lead to a heart attack or a stroke. When blood flow is completely blocked off in part of the heart, this can lead to a heart attack (acute myocardial infarction) where the muscle supplied by that artery begins to die.

A stroke is blockage due to a blood clot in the blood vessel that feeds the brain. Heart failure is when the heart isn’t pumping blood as well as it should and not providing the body its need for blood and oxygen. Arrhythmia is an abnormal heart rhythm and valvular disease is when one or more of the valves in your heart doesn’t work properly.

Heart Attack Symptoms in Women

Symptoms in both women and men can include:

  • Pain, pressure, squeezing, or stabbing pain in the chest
  • Pain radiating to neck, shoulder, back, arm, or jaw
  • Pounding heart, change in rhythm
  • Difficulty breathing
  • Heartburn, nausea, vomiting, abdominal pain
  • Cold sweats or clammy skin
  • Dizziness

In about ½ of all heart attacks in women, typical male symptoms do not occur. Symptoms seen specifically in women include:

  • Milder symptoms (without chest pain)
  • Shortness of breath
  • Sudden onset of weakness, extreme fatigue, body aches, or overall feeling of illness (without chest pain)
  • Unusual feeling or mild discomfort in the back, chest, arm, neck, or jaw (without chest pain)
  • Nausea or vomiting
  • Indigestion
  • Dizziness/Fainting

Stroke Symptoms

Common stroke symptoms include:

  • Sudden numbness or weakness of face, arm or leg, especially on one side of the body
  • Sudden confusion, trouble speaking, or understanding
  • Sudden trouble seeing in one or both eyes
  • Sudden trouble walking, dizziness, loss of balance or coordination
  • Sudden severe headache with no known cause

Unique symptoms in women include:

  • Loss of consciousness or fainting
  • General weakness
  • Difficulty or shortness of breath
  • Confusion, unresponsiveness or disorientation
  • Sudden behavioral change
  • Agitation
  • Hallucination
  • Nausea or vomiting
  • Pain
  • Seizures
  • Hiccups

How You Can Prevent Cardiovascular Disease?

Only 24% of women talk about heart disease with their friends and family. It is important to have a conversation with your primary care doctor, who will ask you about:

  • Your past medical history, including but not limited to prior history of heart disease, history of diabetes.
  • Any issues during pregnancy, any autoimmune diseases, and early menopause.
  • Any current symptoms you may be having.
  • Lifestyle factors that can increase your risk of heart disease, namely smoking, stress, anxiety, diet and physical activity.

Your doctor will examine you and order some blood work to calculate your risk of heart disease.

It is important to know that you can prevent cardiovascular disease by quitting smoking if you are a smoker, increasing physical activity through 150 minutes/week moderate exercise, maintaining your weight, and changing your diet to include fruits, vegetables, grains, low-fat or nonfat dairy products, fish, legumes, and protein sources low in saturated fat, and much more.

Nearly 80 percent of cardiac events can be prevented. Cardiovascular diseases continue to be a woman’s greatest health threat which is why it is important for you to discuss with your primary care doctor of any symptoms you may be having and commit to a better health and lifestyle.

Sylvia Oleck, MD

Interventional Cardiology/ Structural Heart Disease

Assistant Professor of Clinical Medicine at Tulane University

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