Despite a still-widespread perception that breast cancer is the greatest threat to women’s lives, heart disease is the No. 1 killer of women. While 1 in 31 American women dies from breast cancer each year, 1 in 3 dies from heart disease. That’s approximately one woman every minute!
Another misperception is that heart disease is a “man’s disease.” Not so. An estimated 44 million American women are affected by cardiovascular diseases, and 90 percent of women have one or more risk factors for heart disease or stroke – yet only 1 in 5 women believe that heart disease is her greatest health threat.
At the Cooper Women’s Heart Program – one of the largest female cardiology groups in the Delaware Valley – we want to change these troubling statistics by empowering women with information about heart disease, especially what they can do to reduce their risks and take charge of their heart health.
“First and foremost, women need to know they are at risk so they can take appropriate preventive steps,” says Joanne K. Mazzarelli, MD, FACC, who is board-certified in cardiovascular disease, and internal medicine.
“Many of these risk factors can be managed by adopting healthy habits,” Dr. Mazzarelli notes. “Sometimes medication to manage blood pressure or cholesterol is appropriate. And sometimes medical or surgical intervention to address obesity or diabetes is indicated.
We offer a spectrum of resources, depending on what risk factors a woman has,” she adds.
“By taking preventive action, you can dramatically reduce your risk of developing certain types of heart disease,” says Dr. Mazzarelli, “And the earlier you take action to keep your heart healthy, the better.”
Making lifestyle changes early may affect your chances of having a heart attack or stroke later in life, adds Kathleen M. Heintz, DO, FACC, board certified in cardiovascular disease.
Resources available through Cooper’s Women’s Heart Program include nationally recognized expertise for treating valve disease, a cardio-oncology program that treats patients with chemotherapy related heart disease which can be seen in breast cancer patients, alternative imaging modalities for women with symptoms that suggest cardiovascular disease but who do not have obvious blockages in their coronary arteries.
Cooper’s Women’s Heart Program has many strengths and the largest team of cardiologists dedicated to women’s heart health right here in South Jersey,” Andrea M. Russo, MD, adds.
Women in Their 20s and 30s
“This is when you need to focus on lifestyle,” says Dr. Mazzarelli. “If you smoke, quit before too much damage is done. If you’re sedentary, get more active. Maintain a healthy weight and make smart dietary choices.”
“This is when you need to focus on lifestyle, weight and exercise” says Dr. Mazzarelli. Smoking, obesity, and a sedentary lifestyle are becoming common among young women and are major risk factors for atherosclerotic heart disease and diabetes. Maintaining a healthy weight and exercising several times a week can substantially reduce the risk of developing atherosclerotic heart disease later in life. Virtually any type of exercise is beneficial, with as little as one hour a week providing benefit to the heart.
Regular exercise, yoga or tai chi, and meditation are good options to help. It’s also important to know that for younger women, the combination of smoking and taking birth control pills increases heart disease risk by 20 percent.
These are a woman’s childbearing years, so her primary physician is often her OB/GYN. But it’s also a good time to establish a relationship with an internist who will begin to monitor other heart-health markers like cholesterol (the American Heart Association recommends you start having your cholesterol checked at age 20 or earlier).
Women in Their 40s and 50s
“Wellness becomes paramount at midlife, and many women at this stage of life need to learn how to take care of themselves better after a lifetime of putting others’ needs first,” says Dr. Heintz.
These are the decades when women start to experience the hormonal shifts and metabolic changes that signal perimenopause and menopause.
“This is when we focus more on risk factor modification,” says Dr. Heintz. “At this stage of life we often start to see weight gain and increases in blood pressure, cholesterol, and blood sugar levels. It’s important to turn these around because it gets even harder as you get older.”
This means taking ownership of these health risks – and it often means taking medication.
“It’s also not too late to adopt what we call ‘primary prevention’ measures like exercising and eating right,” says Dr. Heintz, “along with regular health screenings.”
“Symptoms in women can be very different than in men,” Dr. Heintz says.
“While we’re conditioned to think the classic sign of a heart attack is extreme chest pain, women are more likely to experience shortness of breath, nausea/vomiting, and back or jaw pain. Other symptoms women should be aware of are dizziness, lightheadedness or fainting, pain in the lower chest or upper abdomen, upper back pain, and extreme fatigue.”
Stressors like caring for aging parents can trigger anxiety or depression, which can have an impact on heart health. Mood swings associated with hormonal changes can wreak havoc with your emotional equilibrium. Sleep issues can start to show a link between too-little sleep and increased risk of heart disease.
Women in Their 60s and Beyond
As women transition past menopause – and lose the cardio-protective benefits of estrogen – their incidence of heart disease begins to match that of men. Atrial fibrillation (the most common heart rhythm disorder, which increases stroke risk), atherosclerosis (plaque buildup that clogs the arteries) and high blood pressure become more common.
“You can’t think of yourself as low-risk anymore,” says Andrea Russo, MD, director of Cooper’s Electrophysiology and Arrhythmia Service, who is board-certified in cardiovascular disease and cardiac electrophysiology. “While we still focus on modifying risk through healthy lifestyle choices, regular screenings, and managing any health issues you may have, it’s now more important than ever for women to recognize the symptoms of heart disease and to take them seriously.”
“Women may experience more frequent palpitations than men. Don’t assume any of these symptoms are nothing,” says Dr. Russo, “report it to your doctor and seek medical attention; don’t minimize it.”
“Today we have a powerful arsenal of medications and technologies to treat arrhythmias tailored specifically to women’s needs,” she adds. In fact, one of Dr. Russo’s clinical interests is gender differences in arrhythmia.
To make an appointment with one of our female cardiologists, call 1.800.8.COOPER (1.800.826.6737 ) or to find out more about the Women’s Heart Program at Cooper, visit CooperHealth.org/womensheart.