Millions of women live in denial. If asked “What is the number one killer of women in the U.S.?” few would answer this critical question correctly. Cancer is often the top of mind response. In reality, cardiovascular disease claims more than 500,000 women’s lives annually, compared to 40,000 women who die each year of breast cancer.
Why the “great divide” between reality and public perception? Cardiologist Patricia Davidson, MD, says it’s a combination of factors including the nation’s long history of overlooking women in research studies, women’s overwhelming fear of cancer, and the feeling that much of their own health is out of their control. But Davidson says heart disease is highly preventable and it’s time for women to step up and take charge.
So what do women—and the men in their lives—need to do? First, understand your risks—and then take action to reduce them; second, recognize the symptoms of heart disease no matter how subtle, and seek help.
“Go to your physician and ask for a heart disease risk assessment,” Davidson advises. “Talk about your family and personal medical history. And make sure the exam includes tests for cholesterol, blood pressure, and blood glucose levels. If there are red flags, don’t despair. With lifestyle changes and some medical intervention, women can greatly reduce their risk for heart attack and stroke,” she says. Work to achieve these healthy changes:
- Shoot for an HDL higher than 50 mg/dL; LDL 100 mg/dL or below; triglycerides less than 150 mg/dL; and blood glucose level of 100 or below.
- Keep your blood pressure at 120/80 or below.
- Maintain a waistline measurement of no more than 35 inches if you are Caucasian, and 31 inches if you are a woman of color.
- Strive for a body mass index (BMI) less than 25. (BMI is the relationship between your weight and height. Calculate your BMI at http://www.nhlbi.nih.gov/health/educational/lose_wt/BMI/bmicalc.htm.)
- If you smoke, stop.
- If you have diabetes (a serious risk factor for heart disease), know your “ABCs” and reach your goals. (That’s your A1C, Blood Pressure and Cholesterol.) Learn about the ABCs of diabetes at www.diabetes.org.
- Get moving—exercise can reduce your risk of stroke and heart attack by 50 percent. “Just walk for 30 minutes a day, every day of the week,” Davidson says.
If you do experience even subtle symptoms that concern you, Davidson says women need to ask for help. “While symptoms such as chest, jaw, neck and arm pain are the same for men and women, women tend to experience more subtle problems and are more likely to overlook them.” These include:
- Chronic fatigue and extreme tiredness at home or work.
- Shortness of breath while doing everyday activities, or waking up breathless at night.
- Heartburn or nausea not related to what you have eaten.
- Tightness in the chest, discomfort, fullness or pain.
- Swelling, particularly of the lower legs and ankles.
- Rapid heartbeats that may cause pain or difficulty breathing.
“Remember,” Davidson says, “Pain can be fleeting, and not the characteristic crushing and longlasting pain we often associate with a heart attack. My advice to all women is to never overlook symptoms. Go to a doctor immediately. If the first doctor you visit doesn’t take you seriously, find another, she adds. “Because of gender, racial and class bias, women are less likely to be referred for diagnostic tests—or treatment—such as a stress echocardiogram, stress nuclear or angiogram. Be aggressive. It could save your life.”