Did you know that heart disease is the number one killer of women?
If you didn’t, you are not alone. In a study commissioned by the American Heart Association in 2012, only 56% of women knew this important fact. The awareness level in black and Hispanic women, and younger women (age 25-34) was even lower. Many women are still under the misconception that they are more likely to die from cancer or other non-cardiac related diseases.
Why does it matter?
If women do not perceive that they are at risk for heart disease, they are unlikely to be taking the steps they need to try to reduce this risk as best they can. They may not see a physician regularly and therefore may not receive the appropriate screening tests for cardiac risk factors. Some of these risk factors, such as diabetes, high blood pressure and high cholesterol, are usually asymptomatic conditions. It is therefore quite critical that women know whether or not they have these conditions and if they do, make sure that they are being optimally treated to reduce their risk for heart disease.
In addition, if women do not know that heart disease is their number one killer, they may not recognize their symptoms as being potentially cardiac in origin and may not seek attention from a cardiovascular disease expert. Making things even more challenging is that women often do not have the same “classic” symptoms of heart disease that men tend to have. They may not have the severe crushing chest pain that we see in the movies or read about. Women can often have more subtle symptoms, for example sweating, jaw pain, nausea, malaise or simply “not feeling quite right.” Education about these symptoms and about cardiovascular disease risk is essential so that women can identify their symptoms as possibly cardiac in nature and seek medical attention in a timely fashion.
This is of particular importance since when it comes to heart, time is of the essence. When women present to the emergency room it is often quite late into the onset of symptoms and as a result, options for management may be more limited and outcomes not as good had they presented earlier. Many women tend to put family first and themselves last but they need to remember that if they don’t take care of themselves they won’t be able to take care of anyone else either!
In addition, along with the traditional risk factors for heart disease like smoking, diabetes, family history, and hypertension, there are pregnancy related conditions that can increase a woman’s cardiac risk. Women who have had preeclampsia are at increased risk for heart disease later in life, and those who have had gestational diabetes are more likely to develop diabetes as time goes on. Women may not think to report these previous conditions to their physicians or when presenting in an emergency room but reporting a comprehensive history is critical to getting timely and appropriate cardiovascular treatment.
What can women do to reduce the risk of heart disease?
Understanding that women are more likely to die of heart disease than of any other cause is the first step. The next step is learning what can be done to try to reduce that risk and then finally doing those things.
Women should schedule an appointment with their practitioner to determine what if any cardiac risk factors they might have. Specifically, they should learn their blood pressure, their cholesterol levels, and determine whether they have diabetes. If any of these are identified they should be treated to an optimal level. Women should survey their family members and learn whether heart disease runs in the family, particularly early onset of heart disease. If you are a smoker, quitting smoking is critical and there are a number of resources and smoking cessation aids available for assistance with this. Exercise is also essential and this can come in many forms. For instance, brisk walking, gardening, swimming, household cleaning are all reasonable choices for exercise so long as the activity gets the heart rate up for at least 30 minutes, most if not all days of the week.
Women, be sure to educate each other. Men, be sure to share this information with your mother, sister, daughter, wife, friend or any other woman in your life. Our hearts depend on it.
Joy M. Gelbman, M.D.
Dr. Gelbman works at the New York Presbyterian Weill Cornell Medical Center in the Division of Cardiology. Her practice includes patients with hypertension, hyperlipidemia, coronary artery disease, valvular heart conditions, and those who have undergone heart surgery or interventional procedures. She has a particular interest in women’s cardiovascular health. Dr. Gelbman is board certified in echocardiography and nuclear cardiology.
Cardiology Services at NewYork-Presbyterian
NewYork-Presbyterian Hospital provides world-renowned cardiovascular care for adults and children with heart diseases and disorders. The 2014-2015 U.S. News & World Report ranked us in the top 3 for cardiology & heart surgery. We welcome and successfully treat some of the highest risk cases in the world.
For more information, please contact our Global Services department at NewYork-Presbyterian at