Heart disease is the number one health threat to American women over age 25, responsible for six times as many deaths each year as breast cancer.
“Most of us think that heart attacks are an older person’s ailment that usually affects men, but in fact, cardiovascular disease, which includes heart attack, stroke, heart failure and valve problems, is the number one killer in the country, even of young women,” says Dr. Shaista Malik, medical director of the UC Irvine Health Preventive Cardiology Program and expert in women’s cardiovascular health.
“Heart disease affects men and women quite differently, so it’s important for women to know what is unique about their heart health,” Malik says.
Less obvious symptoms
Although chest pain is the most common symptom of heart disease for men, women are more likely to experience one or more of the less obvious symptoms, such as nausea or vomiting, shortness of breath, and back or jaw pain.
In addition, women are also less likely to attribute their symptoms to heart problems, and as a result, wait longer to seek help.
There are also differences between men and women in the way blockages in the arteries occur. Women usually have less severe blockages that don’t require a stent, but damaged blood vessels can hinder blood flow to the heart, which can lead to a heart attack.
Heart health questions
Malik encourages women to be proactive in communicating with their doctors about their heart health, by asking the following questions:
- What is my risk of heart disease based on my family history and my risk factors?
- What should I be doing to prevent heart disease?
- Do I need tests to make sure that my symptoms, such as shortness of breath and back or jaw pain, are not due to heart disease?
- If I want to start a family, what should I know about my heart health and how will that affect my pregnancy?
- If you’re a smoker, ask about programs that can help you quit.
Take control of your heart health
Women can prevent as much as 80 percent of heart disease by taking measures to reduce risk. The most important are:
- No smoking
- No more than one alcoholic beverage per day
- Less than seven hours of television watching per week
- At least 2.5 hours of exercise each week
- Maintain a healthy body weight
- Eat a healthy diet
Women don’t incorporate these simple habits into their lifestyle, Malik says, because many of them are not really thinking about heart health. They think heart disease is something that will affect them later in life.
“The problem with that way of thinking is that as population, we are becoming more overweight and obese, so heart disease is becoming an issue earlier in life,” Malik says. “Women of all ages need to be aware of their risk factors and take control of their heart health.”