Nearly one in three women will die of heart disease. Yet, only eight percent of women consider cardiovascular disease to be their greatest health risk.
Heart disease remains the No. 1 killer of American women. It kills more women annually than the next five causes of death combined, including breast cancer.
Here’s what women should know about their No. 1 health risk:
1. Symptoms of heart disease for women are different.
Women’s symptoms may include pain in the chest, upper back, jaw or neck; shortness of breath; flu-like symptoms including nausea, vomiting or cold sweats; fatigue or weakness; feelings of anxiety, loss of appetite or malaise. A man’s classic symptoms include crushing chest pain or pressure, pain down the left arm and shoulder, or weakness and pain when they’re resting.
2. Don’t delay calling 911 and getting to a hospital.
Many women tend to show up in emergency rooms after much heart damage has already occurred. Don’t think the symptoms will ease. Call 911 immediately at the onset of any of these symptoms. And do not drive yourself. Paramedics are specially trained to collaborate with ER physicians to begin treatment in the ambulance.
3. When symptoms are vague, women may not be treated as aggressively.
So mention to your ER medical team or 911 paramedic that you may be experiencing symptoms of a heart attack. And remember, time equals heart muscle — and the longer you wait the greater loss of heart muscle and recovery time.
Two diagnostic tests can improve accuracy of diagnosis: Stress testing plus imaging are some of the most powerful tests for heart disease in women with elevated LDL (“bad”) cholesterol and who use tobacco. An echocardiogram (Echo) or nuclear perfusion scan can markedly improve diagnostic accuracy. An Echo uses ultrasound waves to evaluate heart structure and function, while nuclear imaging (Thallium, MUGA scan) uses radioactive tracers, which are injected into the blood stream to evaluate heart function.
4. Know your risk factors.
Some risk factors cannot be controlled, such as genetics, age, or having a prior heart attack or stroke. You can change some risk factors — smoking, obesity, high cholesterol, inactivity, diabetes and hypertension — through lifestyle changes. Remember, managing your health starts with knowing your numbers — blood pressure, cholesterol, glucose and weight.
5. Adopt the American Heart Association’s “Getting Healthy” plan.
Stop smoking; be physically active for 30 minutes per day; eat a heart-healthy diet; maintain a healthy weight; manage your blood pressure; control your sugar intake; speak with your doctor about depression; consume alcohol in moderation.
6. Make your health a priority.
Schedule an appointment for your annual physical. Afterwards, discuss your risk for heart disease. If you’re at risk, discuss treatment options such as aspirin therapy and, if it applies, estrogen replacement therapy at the time of menopause. Insist on treatment for your symptoms and seek an additional medical opinion if you feel your symptoms are not being treated aggressively enough.
Take time for yourself and keep moving. Remember, your role in improving your health can positively impact your spouse and your children.
David Sewall, MD, is a member of BJC Medical Group. He is an interventional cardiologist on staff at Missouri Baptist Medical Center and he can be reached at 314.996.7190.