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Heart Disease Invisible to Most Women

New study addresses what women do and don’t know about heart disease

Best Friends Show Heart Towards Camera With HandsMany women who have heart disease aren’t connecting the signs to the condition. In a recent study published in the Journal of the American College of Cardiology, the Women’s Heart Alliance conducted a nationwide survey of 1,011 U.S. women ages 25-60 to see how much they knew about heart disease, which is a condition that involves narrow or blocked blood vessels in the heart that can lead to a heart attack or stroke.

The survey showed that:

  • Forty-five percent of the women were not aware that heart disease is the number one killer of U.S. women.
  • Yet, 76 percent of the women reported having one or more risk factors for heart disease.
  • Forty-six percent of women never bring up the subject of heart health with their doctor.

The lack of awareness about heart disease in women is not something new. “For a long time, heart disease was considered a man’s disease,” said Caitlin Giesler, MD, director of Seton’s Women’s Heart Center.

“Before the 1990s, previous studies were done only on men because people assumed that it only happened to men. In the 1990s, more information became available that heart disease impacts women and we began seeing more public awareness efforts such as the ‘Go Red for Women’ campaign.”

The other issue behind lack of awareness is how people view women’s health. “People often think of women’s health as breast and reproductive health and not necessarily heart health. If you’re only thinking about women’s health in a certain context, you’re not going to necessarily focus on heart issues for your next doctor’s appointment. This has to change. Women need to know if they are at risk for heart disease,” said Giesler.

Heart disease signs

Heart disease and heart attacks can affect women and men differently. “The number one sign for heart attack is chest pressure,” said Giesler. “Men typically have pain or numbness in their left arm as well. Women usually experience shortness of breath and pain or numbness in their jaw or neck in addition to the chest pressure.”

Women who have symptoms of heart disease or heart attack often think it’s not happening to them. “When women have heart disease symptoms such as chest pain or shortness of breath, they often assume it’s a number of other issues such as stress, getting older or that they are not in shape,” said Giesler. “We need to educate people so that women are more likely to identify these symptoms correctly.”

Know your heart disease numbers

There are simple steps women can take to check their risk for heart disease. Mainly, women need to check these important health factors:

  • Blood pressure
  • Cholesterol
  • Blood sugar
  • Body Mass Index (BMI)

Women can request tests to check these health factors with their primary care doctors and shouldn’t be shy about talking about their heart health with their doctors. “Women need to be their own best advocate for their heart health,” said Giesler. “If your doctor is dismissing your concerns, speak up and request more evaluations and testing.”

Understanding these risk factors can also help women be more aware of the signs of heart disease and not just ignore their symptoms. “If you’re at risk, then you need to be aware that symptoms you’re experiencing may actually be signs of heart disease,” said Giesler. “For example, if you’re feeling short of breath doing everyday activities that you had no problems doing six months ago, you shouldn’t assume that it’s because you’re tired. It shouldn’t change in that short time period.”

Tips to prevent heart disease

Knowing these risk factors for heart disease can help women determine their overall heart health and serve as a starting point for making changes to their lifestyle to help prevent heart disease. These can include:

  • Get 30 minutes of aerobic exercise at least five times per week.
  • If your BMI is over the normal range (18-25), try to lose weight.
  • Eat more fruits, vegetables and lean proteins such as fish or chicken.
  • Learn how to manage and cope with stress. This can include meditation or exercise.

Interested in learning about your risk for heart disease? Visit the Seton Women’s Heart Center: https://www.seton.net/heart-care/womens-heart-center/