Carrie Fisher’s death in 2016, highlighted a problem facing women: 90% of women have one or more risk factors for heart disease or stroke, but many do not even know they have a problem prior to a fatal heart attack. In fact, symptoms of heart disease are often different for women compared to men and are often misinterpreted as acid reflux, the flu, or normal aging. In addition, women have a higher lifetime risk of stroke than men. According to the American Heart Association, 1 in 31 American women die from breast cancer every year, but one in three dies of heart disease (stroke and heart attack), making heart disease the No.1 killer of women in the U.S. Younger women are not excluded from silent heart attacks either. Learning the risks of heart disease and making lifestyle changes as preventative measures can not only save you from a heart attack, but also can be less expensive and more pleasant.
What is cardiovascular disease?
Cardiovascular disease is a broad term that includes a variety of heart and blood vessel conditions. It can be referred to as coronary artery disease, peripheral arterial disease, heart attack, stroke, high blood pressure, heart valve disease, and congenital heart disease, to name a few. The most common cause of cardiovascular disease is atherosclerosis which is a build-up of cholesterol and plaque on the inner walls of the arteries, thus restricting blood flow to the heart. Chronic low-grade inflammation is prevalent in all stages of atherosclerosis. Without adequate blood, the heart becomes starved of oxygen and vital nutrients it needs to work properly, causing chest pain called angina. When one or more of the coronary arteries becomes blocked, a heart attack can occur.
Heart attack symptoms in women (American Heart Association)
- Uncomfortable pressure, squeezing, fullness or pain in the center of your chest. However, women can experience a heart attack without chest pressure.
- Pain or discomfort in one or both arms, the back, neck, jaw or stomach
- Shortness of breath with or without chest discomfort
- Breaking out in a cold sweat, nausea or lightheadedness
- Chest pain is the most common heart attack symptoms in men and women. However, women are somewhat more likely than men to experience shortness of breath, nausea/vomiting and back or jaw pain
So what can you do to prevent heart disease? Get going on these 8 ways to get on track!
- Quit smoking. Your risk for heart attack and stroke decreases by 50% after just one year of quitting
- Improve cholesterol levels by lowering your LDL levels, the “bad cholesterol”
- Control high blood pressure. Regularly check your blood pressure
- Get active! Start an exercise program involving walking 30 minutes/day
- Follow a heart-healthy diet. Choose healthier fats such as leaner cuts of meat, fish, nuts and olive oil
- Get to a healthy weight
- Control diabetes. The World Health Organization suggests 6 tsps (25g) of sugar/day
- Manage stress and anger. Practice relaxation techniques such as deep breathing, yoga, enjoyable hobbies