While much of the women’s health discussion appropriately focuses on reproductive health and breast cancer awareness, five times more women die from cardiovascular disease than from breast cancer. Cardiovascular disease, including heart disease, high blood pressure, and stroke, is the undisputed number one killer of American women. According to the American Heart Association, cardiovascular disease kills nearly a 500,000 women each year, in the U.S. That figure surpasses the next seven causes of death combined, including breast cancer that kills about 40,000 women annually. Women are 15 percent more likely than men to die of a heart attack and twice as likely to have a second heart attack in the few years following the first.
Despite these facts, only 56 percent of women recognize that cardiovascular disease is their number one killer! We simply must do a better job in creating awareness and taking action.
How can a woman lower her risk of cardiovascular disease, such as heart attack? I will recommend a simple three step approach. First, know if you are at risk. Second, recognize the symptoms. Third, take action to prevent it.
1. Are You at Risk?
Major risk factors for heart attack include:
- High blood pressure
- High cholesterol
- Cigarette smoking
- Family history
With these risk factors in mind, every adult woman should make it a point to know her blood pressure, blood glucose level, and blood cholesterol level. Other risk factors include poor diet, excess alcohol, obesity, and being physically inactive. Stress and depression may also be risk factors, although the link is less clear. There are several cardiovascular disease risk calculators that may be found online. One specific to women may be found here.
2. Recognize the Symptoms of Heart Attack
The textbook symptoms of heart attack are crushing chest pain or pressure below the breast bone with pain radiating down the left arm. These symptoms are commonly present in men presenting with heart attacks. Women often have more vague symptoms such as pain in the upper back, neck, or jaw, shortness of breath, flu-like symptoms (nausea, vomiting, and cold sweats), fatigue, and anxiety. Because of these differences, heart attacks in women are often overlooked or misdiagnosed. The presence of any of these symptoms in an “at-risk” woman should prompt medical attention.
3. Prevent It
Lifestyle change is the key to preventing cardiovascular disease. If you smoke, stop. Increase physical activity with a goal of 30 minutes of moderate intensity activity on most days of the week. If your body mass index (BMI) is 25 or greater or your waist circumference is 35 inches or greater, lose weight. If you don’t know your BMI, the National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute provides an easy to use calculator. Control of other risk factors, such as high blood pressure or high cholesterol, may require drug treatment prescribed by your physician.
With these measures, our mother, our sisters, our wives, and our friends can avoid the ultimate fate articulated by Harlem Renaissance poet Georgia Douglas Johnson in her poem The Heart of a Woman.