By Joanne K. Mazzarelli, MD
Cardiologist, Cooper University Hospital
Cardiovascular disease far surpasses breast cancer. This statement is true regardless of ethnicity. In fact, the average lifetime risk for cardiovascular disease in women is approximately 50 percent. It wasn’t until recently that these statistics began to affect doctors’ approaches to the diagnoses and treatment of cardiovascular disease in women.
In the past, women were often under-diagnosed or treated less aggressively for heart disease. Perhaps this occurred because women tend to have more atypical cardiovascular symptoms, such as shortness of breath, fatigue, and jaw or neck pain.
Although women are different from men in many ways, their risk for heart disease is approximately that of their male counterparts as they age and particularly after menopause. Although women are more likely to have symptoms of heart disease later in life than men, by the time they are diagnosed, they tend to be a lot sicker and are more likely to die from it than men.
Recognize Your Risks
Cardiovascular disease is a broad term that describes a spectrum of diseases that affect your heart, including myocardial infarction (heart attack), heart failure, and heart rhythm problems. It also includes peripheral arterial disease (PAD), which refers to the build-up of plaque in the arteries that lie outside the heart, such as the aorta, carotid arteries, or arteries in the legs. However, a significant amount of cardiovascular morbidity and mortality in women is preventable if detected and treated early.
Traditional risk factors such as high blood pressure, diabetes, a family history of heart disease, obesity, excessive alcohol intake, smoking and high cholesterol all should be discussed with your primary care doctor at each visit.
If you have any of these risk factors, you should discuss them with your doctor. Most importantly, do not ignore symptoms. If you start to notice that you run out of steam a lot easier or that you can no longer walk around the block without getting winded, let your doctor know. He or she might ask for a stress test or an echocardiogram to determine if your symptoms are related to heart disease.
Reduce Your Risks
Decreasing your risk for heart disease can start with simple lifestyle changes. If you smoke, stop now. One study has shown that even one cigarette a day significantly elevates a woman’s risk for heart attacks. After approximately two-to-three years of being tobacco-free, a woman’s risk for heart attack is equal to that of a non-smoker.
A sedentary lifestyle also contributes to heart disease. Approximately 30 minutes of moderate exercise, such as brisk walking, five days a week will help reduce risk. If you have trouble walking, then resistance training with lightweights is a good alternative.
A few simple things can reduce a woman’s chances of dying from heart disease. Recognizing your risks and speaking with your doctor are the first steps.
To learn more visit the Cooper University Hospital Heart Institute.