Heart disease is the leading cause of death in the U.S. for both men and women, but the warning signs for men are different than they are for women. What’s more, heart disease, which causes one out of every three deaths in women, doesn’t affect all women the same, and common misconceptions can put many women at risk. These are a few reasons why the American Heart Association’s Go Red for Women movement advocates more research and swifter action for women’s heart health, in February and all year round.
Some common facts
Although heart disease is the number one killer of women in the U.S., only one out of five women believe heart disease is a real threat to them. The truth, however, is that 90 percent of women have one or more risk factors for developing heart disease. In addition, more women than men have died each year from heart disease since 1984.
Of course, some risk factors for heart disease you can’t control, like genetics, but there are several things you can do to decrease your chances of being affected, like:
- Know your family history
- Don’t smoke
- Manage your blood sugar
- Stay active with exercise
- Maintain a healthy weight
- Eat well
Some common misconceptions
We already addressed that heart disease is the leading cause of death among women, so it is not solely a man’s disease. Another misconception is that only older people can have heart disease. That is also false as heart disease affects women of all ages. Younger women who take oral contraceptives and smoke increase their chance for heart disease by 20 percent, and unhealthy lifestyle choices like overeating and lack of exercise can also cause plaque to accumulate and lead to clogged arteries later in life.
And speaking of exercise, even women who are incredibly fit can suffer from heart disease. One reason is high cholesterol levels, which is why the American Heart Association suggests women start to get their cholesterol levels checked, starting at age 20.
Finally, symptoms of heart disease in women are often misunderstood. Rather than experience extreme chest pain as is often portrayed on TV and in the movies. Women’s symptoms are more likely to include shortness of breath, nausea and vomiting, back or jaw pain, dizziness and extreme fatigue.
Some common misconceptions
As the name suggests, some women experience a heart attack that presents itself with no obvious symptoms, minimal symptoms, or unrecognized symptoms. People who experience these may think they are dealing with indigestion, about with the flu, or a strained muscle in their upper back or chest. But a silent heart attack is real and is caused by blocked blood flow in the coronary arteries due to a build-up of plaque. Although studies are not conclusive, they do suggest silent heart attacks are more common among women than men.
The “silent” in a silent heart attack makes it difficult for someone to know whether they are experiencing one. So, it’s critical to listen to your body and call 911 whenever you think you are experiencing a health emergency, including a silent heart attack.
Take a moment this February to make sure you know and understand your risks for heart disease and if you don’t, please contact a health professional to get your cholesterol checked and discuss any questions or concerns you might have.