Facts on Women and Heart Disease
• Heart disease is the leading cause of death for women in the United States, killing 289,758 women in 2013—that’s about 1 in every 4 female deaths.
• Although heart disease is sometimes thought of as a “man’s disease,” around the same number of women and men die each year of heart disease in the United States. Despite increases in awareness over the past decade, only 54% of women recognize that heart disease is their number 1 killer.
• Heart disease is the leading cause of death for African American and white women in the United States. Among Hispanic women, heart disease and cancer cause roughly the same number of deaths each year. For American Indian or Alaska Native and Asian or Pacific Islander women, heart disease is second only to cancer.
• About 5.8% of all white women, 7.6% of black women, and 5.6% of Mexican American women have coronary heart disease.
• Almost two-thirds (64%) of women who die suddenly of coronary heart disease have no previous symptoms. Even if you have no symptoms, you may still be at risk for heart disease.
Some heart attacks are sudden and intense like the “movie heart attack,” where no one doubts what’s happening, but most heart attacks start slowly, with mild pain or discomfort. Often people affected aren’t sure what’s wrong and wait too long before getting help.
“All women face the threat of heart disease, but those who learn about symptoms and risks that are unique to women, eat a heart-healthy diet, and exercise regularly are taking the first steps in lowering their risks for heart disease,” said Louie Coulis, MD, FACC, Coulis Cardiology, SC.
While some women have no symptoms, others experience angina (dull, heavy to sharp chest pain or discomfort), pain in the neck/jaw/throat or pain in the upper abdomen or back. These may occur during rest, begin during physical activity, or triggered by mental stress. “Women are more likely to describe chest pain that is sharp, burning and more frequently have pain in the neck, jaw, throat, abdomen or back,” said Dr. Coulis. Sometimes heart disease may be silent and not diagnosed until a woman experiences signs or symptoms of a heart attack, heart failure, an arrhythmia, or stroke. Symptoms for the following conditions are:
The most common symptom of a heart attack – in everyone – is some type of pain, pressure or discomfort in the chest, but in women, the pain is not always severe, or even the most prominent.
• Heart Attack: Chest pain or discomfort, upper back pain, indigestion, heartburn, nausea/vomiting, extreme fatigue, upper body discomfort, and shortness of breath.
• Arrhythmia: Fluttering feelings in the chest (palpitations).
• Heart Failure: Shortness of breath, fatigue, swelling of the feet/ankles/legs/abdomen.
• Stroke: Sudden weakness, paralysis (inability to move) or numbness of the face/arms/legs, especially on one side of the body. Other symptoms may include: confusion, trouble speaking or understanding speech, difficulty seeing in one or both eyes, shortness of breath, dizziness, loss of balance or coordination, loss of consciousness, or sudden and severe headache.
“These symptoms are subtler than the obvious crushing chest pain often associated with heart attacks and, as a result, many women choose to go to the emergency room after much of the damage to the heart has occurred,” said Dr. Coulis.
Risk Factors The traditional risk factors for coronary artery disease – high cholesterol, high blood pressure and obesity. “High blood pressure, high LDL cholesterol and smoking are the key risk factors for heart disease and at least half of Americans – 49 percent – have at least one of these three risk factors,” added Dr. Coulis. There are also several medical conditions and lifestyle choices that can also put people at a higher risk for heart disease, including:
• Overweight and obesity
• Poor diet
• Physical inactivity
• Excessive alcohol use
Reduce Your Risk of Heart Disease
The best way for women to reduce their risk for heart disease is to commit to the following lifestyle behaviors.
• Know your blood pressure. An uncontrolled blood pressure can result in heart disease and a high blood pressure has no symptoms, so it is important to have your blood pressure checked regularly.
• Talk to your doctor about whether you should be tested for diabetes. Uncontrolled diabetes raises your chances for heart disease.
• Make sure your doctor is checking your cholesterol and triglycerides
Exercise 30 to 60 minutes a day on most days of the week.
Maintain a healthy weight.
Quit or don’t start smoking.
Make healthy food choices.
Talk to your doctor to learn more about your risks and work with him/her to help you manage other conditions that are risk factors for heart disease, such as high blood pressure, high cholesterol and diabetes.