Three women walking

Women & Heart Disease: What You Don’t Know

Do you know which disease poses the biggest threat to women’s health?

Here’s a hint: It’s not breast cancer, which claims one out of every 31 American women each year. (In fact, the disease we’re talking about is more dangerous than all forms of cancer combined.) Nor is it stroke, which ends fewer than 6 percent of female lives annually.

If you guessed heart disease, you’re right. An estimated 43 million women in the United States are affected by cardiovascular disease. In fact, one out of three women die of heart disease each year—that’s one per minute, according to the American Heart Association.

If you didn’t guess correctly, you’re not alone. Awareness of heart disease in women has more than doubled since 1997. However, only one in five American women believes this is her biggest health threat, while more than 40 percent of the population still think cancer is the leading cause of death in women.

To help bridge the gap in women’s cardiac care, Portland doctors emphasize the importance of understanding how this disease shows up differently in women than in men.

Different bodies, different symptoms

The issue of knowing about the dangers of heart disease in women is the lingering perception that this problem primarily affects men—after all, women comprise only 24 percent of participants in all heart-related studies.

Another problem is that women often misunderstand the symptoms of heart disease, which can be different in women than in men.

Most people recognize chest pain and pain radiating down the left arm as telltale signs of a heart attack. But many women experience silent symptoms that can easily be misconstrued as harmless. These can include:

  • Shortness of breath. A woman can start struggling to breathe as early as a few weeks before having a heart attack. “If you are used to doing a certain amount of activity and then, all of a sudden, you can’t get enough air, that is when I get concerned,” said Dr. Suzanne Steinbaum, director of The Heart and Vascular Institute at Lenox Hill Hospital in New York City.
  • Back, neck or jaw pain. Irregular pain in the lower or upper back can indicate stress in the heart. Sometimes the pain can even radiate into the neck or jaw.
  • Some women report flu-like symptoms in the weeks or days before having a heart attack.

Knowing the risks

The good news about heart disease is that four out of five heart attacks and strokes can be treated or prevented simply by learning what puts women at risk and taking steps to fight it. That’s why, when providing women’s cardiac care, Portland doctors recommend a risk assessment to find out what your danger areas are.

Ninety percent of women have one or more risk factors for heart disease, such as:

  • High blood pressure
  • High blood cholesterol
  • Diabetes or pre-diabetes
  • Smoking
  • Overweight or obese
  • Physical inactivity
  • Family history of early heart disease
  • History of preeclampsia during pregnancy
  • Unhealthy diet
  • Age (55 or older for women)

While some of these factors are uncontrollable—like the fact that women are more likely to get heart disease after menopause, when the body’s estrogen production dips—many of them can be changed.

It doesn’t have to happen overnight. Tackling the changes gradually, one by one, can be an effective approach to combating heart disease. The important thing is that women get started today.

Northwest Primary Care offers state-of-the-art cardiac monitoring and testing, a wide variety of patient healthcare resources, multiple locations to serve the community making it easy to find a doctor near you and much more. Learn more about our cardiac specialty care here.

[Photo by Francisco Osorio via CC License]