If I asked you what the top cause of death in women was, what would you answer?
You might think it was cancer, and you’re not far off. Cancer is a close second. The top spot is occupied by a problem that is much less visible: heart disease.
In 2013, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in Atlanta found that heart disease (also known as cardiovascular disease) accounted for 22.4 percent of deaths in women. That same year, the American Heart Association released a report entitled, “Cardiovascular Disease: Women’s No. 1 Health Threat.” That same report described heart disease as a “silent killer,” with two-thirds of women who died from it having no previous symptoms.
As a cardiologist, I see that it doesn’t have to be this way. There are steps all women can take, regardless of age and medical history, to improve their heart health and stop from becoming a part of this trend.
What are your risks?
The heart isn’t an isolated part of the body. Because the heart controls the flow of blood throughout the body, it affects every part of a person’s health. That also means health problems elsewhere in the body can have major implications for heart health. A family history of heart disease is also a major risk factor because you are more likely to inherit characteristics that increase your risk of heart disease.
Some of the biggest risk factors for heart disease are listed below. These symptoms are strongly connected, meaning that having one can increase your risk for others. They include:
- High blood pressure (hypertension)
- High cholesterol
- Obesity or being overweight
These problems can increase the strain on your heart or damage it, forcing it to work harder. Over time, that strain or damage can lead to heart disease and ultimately, to loss of heart function. They can also cause life-threatening problems like heart attack or stroke.
Read the warning signs
Heart disease symptoms in women are not always the same as in men. The top symptoms that women must watch for are shortness of breath and fatigue. Think about your ability to do tasks as part of a daily routine. Six months ago, they came easily. Today, you are tired, out of breath or can’t seem to find the energy to get finished. These are red flags, and you should make an appointment with a doctor as soon as possible.
There are also warning signs that indicate a need for emergency medical attention:
- Chest pain: Though this is the most recognized symptom, it doesn’t always happen. When it does, take it seriously and go the emergency department immediately, or call 911.
- Severe headache: This can be a sign of stroke, which is strongly related to heart disease.
- Jaw, back or abdominal pain: These can be a sign of stress on the heart, or happen because of “radiating” pain, or pain that spreads away from its source.
- Shortness of breath or trouble breathing: As mentioned above, this is a classic sign of cardiac trouble.
These signs, especially when not connected to strenuous activity, are symptoms that demand immediate medical attention.
One of the most important things I tell my patients, especially women, is that this should not be a “wait and see” situation. You must not wait for your symptoms to go away! These are time-sensitive problems. In the worst of cases, waiting can result in irreversible damage or even death.
What you can do
One of the most important things to do to prevent heart disease or reduce its impacts is to improve any one of the listed risk factors. Age is also less important than your risk factors, so reducing them at any age is essential. You can achieve this by doing the following:
- Losing weight
- Quitting smoking
- Improving your diet
- Exercising more
- Controlling blood pressure (Through lifestyle modification, medication or both)
- Lowering blood sugar (Through diet, exercise, medication or a combination of the three)
If you are worried about or suspect you have heart disease, see a doctor promptly. One of the biggest barriers to helping women with heart disease or related problems is that we see them too late. That is why preventing delays to detection and diagnosis is essential.
Women have worse outcomes only when delays in care take place. When properly treated in a timely fashion, women have the same survival statistics as men. It’s also important to remember that medicine has greatly improved the care of cardiac events. Many patients have misconceptions that women cannot be treated as easily as men, because of differences in their bodies such as smaller arteries. This is absolutely not the case. Talk to your cardiologist. The earlier we can address a problem, the better the chance of a good outcome.
Dr. Roshan Mathew is a board certified cardiologist and executive director of One Health Cardiology and the Owensboro Health Heart and Vascular Institute. For more information or to schedule an appointment with a provider in Owensboro Health’s One Health medical group, call 844-44-MY-ONE (844-446-9663).