Heart Disease Facts Every Woman Should Know

Learn the facts about women and heart disease and nine ways to reduce your risk.

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More women than men die of heart disease each year and they often exhibit signs and symptoms that are different than men's. Plus, there are additional risk factors that affect women more than men. Women of all ages should take heart disease prevention seriously as it's the leading cause of death for women 65 years and older, the second leading cause for women 45 to 64, and the third leading cause for women between the ages of 25 and 44.

Different Heart Attack Symptoms
Although the most common symptom of a heart attack in both men and women is chest pressure or pain, it's not always severe or even the most prominent symptom in women. Women are more likely than men to have subtle signs such as neck, shoulder, upper back or abdominal discomfort, shortness of breath, nausea or vomiting, sweating, lightheadedness, dizziness, or unusual fatigue. This may be because women tend to have blockages not only in their main arteries, but also in the smaller arteries that supply blood to the heart. Because their symptoms are not those typically associated with a heart attack, many women tend to seek care after heart damage has already occurred.

Additional Risks for Women
Certainly the usual risk factors for heart disease such as high cholesterol, high blood pressure, and obesity affect women as well as men, but there are other factors that may play a larger role in women. Those factors include metabolic syndrome (a combination of abdominal fat, high blood pressure, high blood sugar, and high triglycerides), low levels of estrogen after menopause, smoking, and mental stress and depression. Depression is twice as common in women as men, and the risk of heart disease in people who are depressed is two to three times higher than those who aren't depressed.

Prevention for Women
The American Heart Association recommends the following guidelines to reduce the risk of heart disease.

• Do not smoke or use tobacco.

• Exercise. If you need to lose or keep off weight, you should get at least 60 - 90 minutes of moderate-intensity exercise on most days. To maintain your weight, get at least 30 minutes of exercise a day, preferably at least 5 days a week.

• Join a cardiac rehabilitation program if you have recently had a heart attack, angina, angioplasty, or a stent procedure.

• Eat a heart-healthy diet. The diet includes a variety of fruits and vegetables, grains, low-fat or nonfat dairy products, fish at least twice a week, legumes, lean proteins, limited amounts of saturated and trans fats and a moderate intake of monounsaturated fats.

• Maintain a healthy weight. Strive for a body mass index (BMI) between 18.5 and 24.9 and a waist smaller than 35 inches.

• Manage stress and get checked and treated for depression, if necessary.

• Ask your doctor about taking omega-3 fatty acids supplements.

• Keep blood pressure under 120/80 mm Hg. Talk to you doctor about whether you need blood pressure medications.

• Talk to your doctor about aspirin therapy (dose 75 mg to 325 mg a day). Aspirin therapy is recommended for women over age 65 to prevent heart attack and stroke as long as blood pressure is controlled and the benefit is likely to outweigh the risk of gastrointestinal side effects. Regular use of aspirin is not usually recommended for healthy women under age 65 to prevent heart attacks.

By Anne Cain, R.D.
Feb, 2010
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