The average woman’s heart beats 100,000 times a day or over 2.95 times in a lifespan. The human heart is only the size of a fist but it is the strongest and hardest working muscle in our bodies. The heart is a vital organ we must go to great lengths to protect. Diseases of the heart remain the number one threat to both men and women’s health in the US and globally. Heart disease is a broad term for diseases that affect the heart and blood vessels including heart attacks, strokes, high blood pressure and heart failure. In the US, heart disease claims the life of one person every 40 seconds. While still often considered a “man’s disease,” heart disease has killed more American women than men each year since 1984. Although rates of heart disease rates on the whole have declined since the late 1990’s, rates in women under age 50 are on the rise. Women under 50 who suffer a heart attack are also twice as likely as a men to die as a result.
The Female Heart
We are still learning about the female heart. Early studies on heart disease were largely conducted on male subjects and women still only make up about 24% of participants in all heart-related studies. We do know that women’s’ hearts’ are different than men’s hearts. They are smaller, they pump faster and they have smaller coronary arteries. Recent studies have also suggested that women’s hearts may not handle the burden of some chronic diseases as well as men’s hearts. Obesity and type II diabetes significantly increases a woman’s risk for coronary artery disease compared to men. This is important knowledge in terms of how aggressively we monitor and treat risk factors and chronic diseases. Up until now, women have received less aggressive screening, prevention and acute treatment for heart disease compared to male counterparts. It is time for both the public and medical community to take a closer look at how we treat women’s hearts.
Dispelling the Myths About Heart Disease
More women are dying from heart disease yet there are still huge discrepancies in women’s awareness of heart disease, response to symptoms, and medical care. One out of three women in America die from heart disease, yet only 56% of women view heart disease as the number one threat to her health. Minorities and younger women still remain largely in the dark. Heart disease kills five times as many women as breast cancer, yet a quarter of women still believe cancer to be the leading cause of death. Correctly identifying the enemy is the first step in our defense.
Women often believe a heart attack can not happen to them or chalk up the symptoms of an acute heart attack to anxiety, indigestion or the flu. The crushing “elephant sitting on my chest” pain typical of men is often experienced as intermittent chest discomfort, squeezing or fullness in women. Women also frequently experience associated symptoms of shortness of breath, jaw pain, arm pain or nausea. (See video and blog “What Does a Heart Attack Feel Like in a Woman?) Women are less likely to immediately call 911 at the time of symptoms onset, which can lead to a delay in lifesaving care. In one study 79% of women said they would immediately call 911 if they thought someone else was having a heart attack, but only 53% said they would call 911 if they were personally experiencing a heart attack. Instead, women said they would take an aspirin, call their doctor or drive to the emergency department. This lag time between symptom onset and emergency care is crucial and at the first sign of trouble women need to make the call to 911.
Knowing Your Risk
What can you do to prevent heart disease? The most important thing to know is your risk. Ninety percent of adult women currently have one or more risk factors for heart disease, including poor diet, inadequate physical activity, high blood pressure, high cholesterol, smoking, obesity or abnormal blood glucose levels. All it takes is one risk factor to put you at increased risk. Heart disease is a silent killer because there are no symptoms over the years as it develops. A whopping 64% of women who die suddenly from a heart attack have no prior symptoms. The good news is that heart disease is a largely preventable disease and roughly 80% of risk factors are within our control. We can fight heart disease. By identifying your personal risk factors and working with your doctor you can develop an effective heart disease prevention plan.
We are already making headway in the battle against heart disease. Since 1998, heart disease as a whole has decreased by 30%. Over the next 15 years, we can see a huge decline in heart disease in women as mothers, sisters and neighbors have an even greater awareness of its effects and symptoms along with adoption of healthier heart habits. Together, we can make the future full of healthier hearts!
Ways Every Woman Can Maximize Heart Health & Lower Risk
Learn your family history. Know if your father or male siblings had heart disease or risk factors before age 55 or your mother and female siblings had heart disease or risk factors before age 65. Talk to your doctor about your family history.
Eat a Heart Healthy Diet. Eat a diet rich in vegetables, fruit, and whole grains with at least two servings of omega-3 rich fish, like wild Alaskan Salmon, twice a week. Eat a diet low in saturated fats (less than 140 calories per day) and eliminate trans-fats. Eat a diet low in salt (less than 2,300 mg per day). Cut down on added sugars from sugar-sweetened beverages and processed foods (less than 100 calories a day).
Get regular exercise. Exercise at a moderate intensity for 30 minutes 5 days of the week or more plus do 2 days of muscle-strengthening activities, like lifting weights or yoga.
Get 7 to 9 hours of sleep per night. Sleeping less than 6 hours per night has been found to independently increase risk of heart disease in women. So make your sleep a priority.
Maintain a healthy weight. Keep weight at goal between a body mass index of 18 to 25. If you need to lose weight, talk to your doctor about healthy ways to increase physical activity and cut down on calories.
Get regular check-ups and cholesterol screening. Starting at age 20, have your cholesterol level checked. Have your blood pressure checked every 2 years or more frequently if it is evelevated. Keep an open diaologue with your doctor and stay up to date on your screening and prevention.
Don’t smoke and avoid second hand smoke.
Drink in moderation. Limit alcohol intake to 1 drink a day for women.