Compared to twenty years ago, the awareness of heart disease has grown. Heart disease is the leading cause of death in the United States. It results in 1 out of every 4 overall deaths. Casual observers might connect heart disease (like heart attacks) primarily to men. But heart disease is also the number one killer of women in the U.S. and that number is growing.
This gap in heart health education is dangerous. Too many women remain unaware of the importance of maintaining a healthy heart. According to a 2013 study by the American Heart Association, awareness of heart disease remains lower in minority women and in younger women aged 25-34. More African-American women die of heart disease than white women.
Preventative care is the best solution to heart disease. That starts with education. Women’s health awareness of heart disease ages 25 – 34 needs to be more widespread. Women need to be better informed of the facts surrounding heart health in order to make better lifestyle decisions that will affect their future heart health.
Some of the overall risk factors for heart disease include:
- High blood pressure
- Family history / genetics
Although the risk factors above apply to both men and women, there are other factors that affect women specifically.
Risk Factors Related to Women
Men and women have obvious physical differences. These differences impact the risk factors that women have to be aware of when it comes to heart disease. Some of these risk factors include:
- “Relatively high testosterone levels prior to menopause” *
- “Increasing hypertension during menopause” *
- “Autoimmune diseases such as rheumatoid arthritis – more common in women than in men” *
- “Stress and depression – also more common among women” *
- “Low risk factor awareness – Lack of recognition of many of the above conditions as risk factors for heart disease is a risk factor in itself” *
- Diabetes increases the risk of heart disease more in women than men**
- Metabolic Syndrome – a combination of fat around your abdomen, high blood pressure, high blood sugar, and high triglycerides**
- Pregnancy complications such as high blood pressure or diabetes during pregnancy can increase a woman’s long-term risk of high blood pressure and diabetes and increase the risk of development of heart disease in both the mother and in her children.
*Source: Lili Barouch. M.D., Johns Hopkins Medicine
**Source: Mayo Clinic
Women and Heart Disease Symptoms
According to the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services / National Heart, Lung and Blood Institute, women may experience heart disease symptoms differently than men do. Common symptoms of a heart attack in a woman is pain, pressure, or discomfort in the chest. But some women don’t experience any symptoms until arrhythmia (irregular heart beat), heart failure or a heart attack occurs.
Women experience symptoms that are unrelated to chest pain. This is what can make detecting heart disease in women more difficult. It’s important that women keep an eye out for these symptoms:
- Neck, jaw, shoulder, upper back, abdominal discomfort
- Shortness of breath
- Right arm pain
- Nausea or vomiting
- Lightheadedness or dizziness
- Unusual fatigue
The reason why women suffer from more subtle symptoms than men is due to blockage outside of their main arteries. Smaller arteries that supply blood to the heart may become blocked, causing a condition known as small vessel heart disease or microvascular disease.
It’s important to know that when women experience a heart attack, symptoms such as pain, pressure or discomfort in the chest may not be as prominent or severe. Sometimes, women may experience a heart attack without any pain. Compared to men, women are more likely to have symptoms that appear unrelated to a heart attack chest pain. These include:
- Nausea / vomiting
- Pain in the right arm
- Discomfort in upper back, abdomen, shoulder, neck or jaw
- Shortness of breath
- Dizziness / lightheadedness
- Unusual fatigue
How to Reduce Your Risk of Heart Disease
Factors like family history are things that women can’t prevent (but they can be more alert of symptoms). But there are measures women ages 25-34 can take to prevent heart disease. These include:
- Quite or don’t start smoking
- Exercise 30-60 minutes a day (60-90 minutes if you’re looking to lose weight)
- Maintain a healthy weight
- Eat a diet low in saturated fat, cholesterol and salt.
The importance of a maintaining a healthy diet and exercising regularly cannot be stressed enough. Always maintain an open communication with your primary care physician so that she or he can give you guidance regarding the status of your heart.
Heart disease is something that women of all ages should be aware of. But especially so for women 25-34 should be aware of since they’re young enough to prevent many of the risk factors. It’s important to consult your doctor for a better understanding of your personal health. But if you’re looking for general guidelines to a healthy heart, this is a great start.