How Women Can Lower Their Risk of Heart Disease

February 26, 2019
heart health blog

As an OB/GYN, my practice revolves around helping women best take care of themselves. So, I make a point to talk to them about the top threat to women: heart disease.

The American Heart Association promotes heart health for women in February each year with its signature initiative, Go Red for Women.

The Go Red for Women movement works to correct misconceptions about heart disease in women. Many people have the perception that heart disease is a man’s disease, but that’s not true.
Most people don’t know the No. 1 cause of death for women in America is heart disease.

A lot of women fear other things -- maybe breast cancer, ovarian cancer, lung cancer or colon cancer. Certainly, those are diseases we should be vigilant about screening for, but those are not the things that are deadly for most women. Heart disease kills more women annually in the United States than all causes of cancer combined.

A lot of heart disease is preventable, but you must know your risk factors. Risk factors are very similar between men and women -- high blood pressure, high cholesterol, smoking, obesity and physical inactivity.

If you think about it, also, those are modifiable risk factors, meaning we can prevent and/or treat them by losing weight or taking medication when necessary.

You can lower your chance of heart disease and a heart attack by taking simple steps:

• Eat a healthy diet with fruits, vegetables, whole grains, and fat-free or low-fat milk and milk products. Choose foods low in saturated fats, cholesterol, salt and added sugars.
• Be physically active. Adults should strive for at least 2 hours and 30 minutes of physical activity each week. You can spread your activity out during the week and can break it up into smaller chunks of time during the day.
• Be tobacco-free. If you are ready to quit, call 1-800-QUIT-NOW (1-800-784-8669) for free resources.
• Limit alcohol use, which can lead to long-term health problems including heart disease and cancer. If you drink, do so in moderation, which is no more than one drink a day for women. Do not drink at all if you are pregnant.
• Know your family history. There may be factors that could increase your risk for heart disease and stroke.

Symptoms of heart disease vary for men and women. A lot of men will have crushing chest pain symptom. That’s often not how heart disease will present in women.

While some women have no symptoms of heart disease, others may experience heavy, sharp chest pain or discomfort, pain in the neck/jaw/throat, or pain in the upper abdomen or back. Sometimes heart disease may be silent and not diagnosed until a woman has signs or symptoms including:

• Heart attack: Chest pain or discomfort, upper back pain, indigestion, heartburn, nausea/vomiting, extreme fatigue, upper body discomfort, and shortness of breath.
• Arrhythmia: Fluttering feelings in the chest.
• Heart Failure: Shortness of breath, fatigue, swelling of the feet/ankles/legs/abdomen.
• Stroke: Sudden weakness, paralysis (inability to move) or numbness of the face/arms/legs, especially on one side of the body. Other symptoms may include confusion, trouble speaking or understanding speech, difficulty seeing in one or both eyes, shortness of breath, dizziness, loss of balance or coordination, loss of consciousness, or sudden and severe headache.

The bottom line is, if something doesn’t feel right, get checked out. Listen to your body.

Dr. Brooke Chalk is an OB/GYN with NHRMC Physician Group – Glen Meade Center for Women's Health.

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