Heart Disease is #1 Killer of Women

Recognizing the Different Symptoms, Prevention is Key

Heart disease is the No. 1 killer of women, with 1 in 3 dying from a heart attack, stroke or congestive heart failure. While that statistic is startling so is the next one: only 20 percent of women think they will be affected by heart disease. That is why it is so important to increase awareness about women and heart disease.

The American Heart Association launched its Go Red for Women movement in 2004 to raise awareness of heart disease in women. The program helps women recognize the subtler warning signs of a heart attack and promotes healthy lifestyles. While men have a higher risk of heart disease at a younger age, women catch up after menopause.

Women need to recognize that their heart attack symptoms are not what people normally think of – such as intense chest pain along with pain in the arm or shoulder. Instead, they have more mild chest pressure, but often pressure can be located elsewhere in the body, including the back, jaw, arms or stomach. There can be other symptoms as well, such as shortness or breath, sweating or nausea. If women experience those symptoms, they need to call 911 as soon as possible to receive lifesaving care.

Genetics plays a role, but 80 percent of heart disease is preventable by taking simple steps. First, visit your medical provider and find out your numbers: weight, blood sugar, blood pressure and cholesterol. Once you know those, talk them over with your physician and find out what they mean. If they are high or near the top of the normal range, talk over with your physician what you can do to lower them. If your blood pressure is high, could you lower it by exercising and making changes to your diet? If there is a strong history of heart disease, please share that with your provider as well.

If you are at high risk for heart disease, consider getting a calcium score. During this test, a simple CT scan can identify premature heart disease before any symptoms start.

Women can reduce their risk of heart disease by:

  • Incorporate at least 30 minutes of walking or other physical activity into their day.
  • Eat more fruits, vegetables, whole grains, low-fat dairy products and healthier proteins, such as chicken or fish.
  • Drink more water and less sugary drinks.
  • Watch your salt intake.
  • Limit alcohol intake.
  • Quit smoking.

Changing habits is not easy, but even a small change can make a huge difference. If you do nothing else, quit smoking. Talk with your doctor about getting help to quit.

We need to keep talking about heart disease and helping both men and women recognize the symptoms and what they can do to keep their hearts healthy.

Carrie Chapman, MD, is a cardiologist at ThedaCare Cardiovascular Care in Appleton.