Fighting heart disease in women

September 17, 2007
Where for years women have raised breast cancer awareness by wearing pink and ovarian cancer awareness by wearing teal, a recent increase in the awareness of an altogether different disease has many wearing red.

Heart disease – long thought of as a man’s disease – is currently the number one killer of American women. It’s a harsh reality recently underscored by any number of national health campaigns including the American Heart Association’s Go Red For Women, which encourages women to wear red in the fight against heart disease.

"In America, when most women think of their own mortality, they think of breast cancer not heart disease," said Catherine Sotir, MD, a family medicine physician in Wilmington. "In reality, however, one in three women over age 65 will develop heart disease."

Factors contributing to heart disease in women are many, said Dr. Sotir, including lifestyle demands and a general lack of awareness about the signs and symptoms of heart disease, especially heart attack.

"Because of the multiple roles women often play within family and society, they sometimes put their personal health second, which can delay their getting the right information and treatment," she said. "There’s also a difference how in the event of a heart attack men and women experience symptoms.”

Dr. Sotir said classic symptoms of heart attack for men can include chest and left arm pain. For women, however, neck and jaw pain along with nausea are more common symptoms of heart attack.

"But, unfortunately, many times women tend to underplay these symptoms, prolonging treatment," she said. “We need to communicate to women to take these symptoms seriously in addition to teaching them healthier heart habits.”

What aren’t so different between men and women are the biological factors that hasten heart disease, said Dr. Sotir.

“High cholesterol, high blood pressure, smoking, obesity, diabetes and age are all risk factors that increase the likelihood of heart disease in women,” she said. “A family history of heart disease is also something that must be considered.”

Chances of heart attack are greater for African-American women compared to their white counterparts, said Dr. Sotir. And all women with a history of heart attack are more prone to have another.

Prevention and greater awareness are key in fighting heart disease in women, said Dr. Sotir.

“It’s important for women to talk to their health care providers about how to decrease their risks for heart disease … and that means more than just getting their cholesterol checked,” she said. “It means exercise, diet and taking a long term approach to having a healthy heart.”