Younger women may not be thinking about heart disease, but they should be, according to cardiologist
Melissa Robinson, director of the UW Ventricular Arrhythmia Program. Not only is heart disease the No. 1 cause of death in women (and men), but it is also more deadly than all forms of cancer combined.
"Most people in their 30s and 40s aren’t thinking heart disease, but that’s the time when many of their habits and choices effect where they end up from a cardiovascular standpoint," she said.
The American Heart Association says that 90 percent of women have one or more risk factor for developing heart disease. These risk factors include smoking, diabetes, high blood pressure, high cholesterol, poor diet, excessive alcohol use, obesity and physical inactivity.
Heart disease is still largely thought of as a men’s health issue despite the increase of awareness efforts like the campaign Go Red for Women. This misconception may cause symptoms of heart disease to go unrecognized or be attributed to something else, such as stress or anxiety.
"Heart disease is a part of women’s lives, and it’s important they talk to their doctors about it," said Robinson.
Recognizing women’s unique symptoms
Women may experience signs of heart disease differently than men. Both men and women commonly experience chest pain, known as angina. It can feel like pressure or squeezing in the chest. Women, however, are most likely to experience it as a sharp, burning pain. They are also more likely to have pain in the neck, jaw, throat, abdomen or back. Women may experience this feeling when they’re resting, while men tend to feel pain during physical activity.
What is cardiovascular disease?
Cardiovascular diseases affect the heart and the circulatory system, often because of a buildup of cholesterol in the walls of the arteries. Common forms of cardiovascular diseases are heart attack, stroke and peripheral vascular disease.
When it comes to heart attacks, women are more likely to experience symptoms outside of the classic feeling of crushing chest pain. These symptoms include back pain, indigestion, heart burn, nausea and vomiting, extreme tiredness, light-headedness and dizziness.
Because women may experience these symptoms differently, they may not seek emergency care as soon as they should.
Lowering risk of heart disease
Robinson says that the most valuable thing women should do to reduce their risk of heart disease is to become active participants in their own care.
"Women should feel empowered to advocate for themselves and ask questions," she said. "If you think something is wrong, don’t stop at the first answer if it is not helping your symptoms. Keep going."
In addition, there are three important steps women (as well as men) can take to reduce heart disease risk:
- Know your numbers. Blood pressure, body mass index (BMI) and cholesterol are all factors in cardiovascular risk. Talk with your doctor about getting the appropriate screening tests and what your particular numbers mean.
- Quit smoking. Smoking is not healthy for anyone, but a woman who smokes has a much higher risk of heart disease than a man who smokes.
- Get active. Simply taking a 30-minute walk each day is a good start. Popular activity trackers can help as well -- getting 10,000 steps a day is a reasonable goal.
By taking these steps and developing other healthy habits, such as choosing nutritious food and limiting alcohol intake, women can reduce their risk by as much as 82 percent according to the National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute.