Ladies: Take this risk to heart
When it comes to heart disease, men and women are not created equal. For years, the term “heart disease” conjured thoughts of a middle-aged male. Yet, the facts show more women than men die of the disease annually. But why the discrepancy?
The answer is twofold, according to Thomas Broderick, M.D., interventional cardiologist with The Christ Hospital’s Heart and Vascular Center. “After menopause, women lack estrogen, which is thought to be a protective hormone,” he says. “And, because women often have more subtle signs of heart disease, it can go unnoticed and be more deadly, no matter their age.”
The female hormone estrogen may offer protection against heart disease by naturally increasing healthy HDL cholesterol, decreasing bad LDL cholesterol and dilating the blood vessels so blood can flow freely. Estrogen also has some antioxidant properties, which can help prevent damage to the blood vessels. Since these protective factors diminish after menopause (typically between the ages of 45 and 60), older women need to be even more diligent about paying attention to their heart health.
As few as 10 years ago, the medical community believed that hormone replacement therapy (HRT) would offer some protection against heart disease. But today’s research shows HRT therapy cannot achieve the same protection as natural estrogen. Instead, Dr. Broderick recommends women start with lifestyle modifications and keep their physician abreast of any physical changes.
Reduce your risk
In addition to aging, some risk factors are not treatable, such as a family history of heart disease. Many of the other risk factors, though, can be controlled. Here are simple recommendations on how women of all ages can protect their heart:
- Keep stress to a minimum. A recent study shows that women with high job strain and other stress factors are 40 percent more likely to develop heart disease.
- Maintain your weight. A heart-healthy diet and just 30 minutes of aerobic exercise daily can cut your heart disease risk in half.
- Get screened. Starting in your 20s, get your blood cholesterol levels tested every five years, and check your blood pressure annually. Total cholesterol higher than 200 mg/dL or blood pressure higher than 120/80 should be closely monitored or treated with medication. If you’re at higher risk, your doctor may consider more advanced screenings such as a chest x-ray, stress test or heart CT scan to determine treatment.
- Treat and manage medical conditions. Precursors to heart disease such as diabetes, high blood pressure and high cholesterol should be properly managed.
- Quit smoking. Within two years of quitting, you can cut your heart disease risk by as much as one-third.
Know the warning signs
Heart disease develops over time when plaque builds up, causing a clot to form or the arteries to harden and narrow. This can lead to the classic signs of a heart attack, such as chest pain. In women, however, the signs can be different and include:
- Neck, shoulder, jaw, upper back or abdominal pain
- Shortness of breath
- Nausea or vomiting
- Lightheadedness or dizziness
- Unusual fatigue
The Christ Hospital is raising awareness about heart disease in women through a partnership with The American Heart Association’s Go Red for Women campaign.
Did you know?
- One in three female adults has some form of cardiovascular disease.
- Since 1984, the number of heart-related deaths for females has exceeded those for males.
- More than 454,000 females die from cardiovascular disease in the U.S. each year, compared to only 268,000 who died from a form of cancer.