Posted on February 15, 2017
Do More Than Wear Red This Month—Listen to Your Heart
The numbers are sobering: Heart disease is the leading cause of death for women in the United States. Although it’s sometimes thought of as a “man’s disease,” approximately the same number of women and men die each year of heart disease in this country. In fact, a study released in 2013 reports that heart disease killed 289,758 that year—that’s one in every four women.
Coronary heart disease, often simply called heart disease, is the main form of heart disease. It’s a disorder of the blood vessels of the heart that can lead to heart attack. A heart attack occurs when an artery becomes blocked, preventing oxygen and nutrients from getting to the heart. Other cardiovascular diseases include stroke, high blood pressure, angina (chest pain), and rheumatic heart disease.
Women often assume heart disease can be “cured” with surgery or medication. This is a myth. Heart disease is a lifelong condition—once you get it, you’ll always have it. Procedures such as bypass surgery and percutaneous coronary intervention can help blood and oxygen flow to the heart more easily, but arteries remain damaged, which means you’re more likely to have a heart attack. In addition, the condition of your blood vessels will steadily worsen unless changes are made in your daily habits. Complications from heart disease can cause permanent disability and death—that’s why it’s so vital to take action to prevent and control this disease.
Men and Women Experience Heart Attacks Differently
Men typically exhibit shortness of breath, unusual fatigue, general weakness, dizziness, and a cold sweat. A study by the American Journal of Critical Care found that men reported more severe chest pain than women. Chest pain can come on fast or slow and last several minutes.
Women may also exhibit shortness of breath and unusual fatigue, but may also experience anxiety, severe indigestion, and sleep disturbance. The shortness of breath can be alarming. Many describe it as feeling like they’ve run a marathon without having taken a single step. Anxiety can come on suddenly—as if you’re having a panic attack for no reason at all. Some women describe upper back pressure that feels like squeezing or a rope being tied around them. Alarmingly, an Oregon study found that up to 95% of women experience early warning signals weeks or even months leading up to their cardiac event.
No matter your gender, if you experience any of these symptoms call 911. So often heart patients say they delayed calling for medical help because they didn’t want to look foolish if the indigestion they felt was simply heart burn. Many simply aren’t aware of the warning signs of a heart attack and just wait for the symptoms to go away. In particular, women don’t speak up when experiencing these symptoms because they don’t want to disturb others!
The providers at CCHC Heart and Vascular Specialists urge you to be aware of the basic heart attack symptoms—don’t wait for them to get worse. The earlier a patient receives medical assistance, the greater his or her chance of survival.
Are You at Risk?
The first step in improving heart health is becoming aware of your personal risk for heart disease. Some risks, like smoking cigarettes, are obvious—every woman knows whether or not she smokes! But other risk factors, such as high blood pressure or high cholesterol, generally don’t have obvious signs or symptoms.
High blood pressure, high LDL cholesterol, and smoking are key risk factors for heart disease. Nearly half of Americans (49%) have at least one of these three risk factors.
Several other medical conditions and lifestyle choices can also put you at a higher risk for heart disease, including:
- Poor diet;
- Physical inactivity; and
- Excessive alcohol use.Create a Partnership with Your Doctor
A crucial step in determining your risk is to visit your doctor for a thorough checkup. Your doctor can be an important partner in helping set and reach goals for heart health. But don’t wait for your doctor to bring up heart disease or risk factors. Many don’t routinely bring up the subject with women.Tell your doctor you want to keep your heart healthy and would like help in achieving that goal.
Ask questions about your chances of developing heart disease and how you can lower your risk:
1. What is my risk for heart disease?
2. What is my blood pressure? What does it mean for me and what do I need to do about it?
3. What are my cholesterol numbers? What do they mean for me and what do I need to do about them?
4. What is my “body mass index” and waist measurement? Do I need to lose weight for my health?
5. What is my blood sugar level and does it mean I’m at risk for diabetes?
6. What other screening tests for heart disease do I need? How often should I return for checkups?
7. What can you do to help me quit smoking?
8. How much physical activity do I need to protect my heart?
9. What is a heart-healthy eating plan for me? Should I see a registered dietitian or qualified nutritionist to learn more about healthy eating?
10. How can I tell if I’m having a heart attack?If you’re already being treated for heart disease or risk factors, ask your doctor to review your treatment plan with you. Ask: Is what I’m doing in line with the latest recommendations? Are my treatments working? Are my risk factors under control? If your doctor recommends a medical procedure, ask about its benefits and risks. Find out if you will need to be hospitalized and for how long, and what to expect during the recovery period.
When your doctor asks you questions, answer as honestly and fully as you can. While certain topics may seem quite personal, discussing them openly can help your doctor find out your chances of developing heart disease. It can also help your doctor work with you to reduce your risk. If you already have heart disease, briefly describe each of your symptoms. Include when each symptom started, how often it happens, and whether or not it’s been getting worse.
Of course, if you don’t understand something your doctor says, ask for a simpler explanation. Be sure you understand how to take any medications you’re given. If you’re worried about understanding your doctor’s instructions, bring a friend or relative with you to your appointment so they can write down instructions for you.
Simple Changes Aid Heart Health
You can lower your chance of heart disease and a heart attack by taking simple steps.
Eat a healthy diet with fruits, vegetables, whole grains, and fat-free or low-fat milk and milk products. Choose foods low in saturated fats, cholesterol, salt (sodium), and added sugars.
Exercise regularly. Adults need 2 hours and 30 minutes (or 150 minutes total) of exercise each week. You can spread your activity out during the week, and can break it up into smaller chunks of time during the day.
Be smoke free. If you want to quit smoking or haven’t had luck in the past, CCHC offers FREE smoking cessation classes monthly as part of a community awareness program. Instructor Dr. Ronald Preston has helped hundreds of people successfully break the smoking habit. For more information, contact Stacie Barnett at 252.672.9690 or click here.
Limit alcohol use. Alcohol abuse can lead to long-term health problems, including heart disease and cancer. If you do choose to drink, do so in moderation, which is no more than one drink a day for women.
Know your family history. Several factors could increase your risk for heart disease and stroke.
Manage your medical conditions. Learn the ABCS of heart health. Keep them in mind every day and especially when you talk to your health provider:
- Appropriate aspirin therapy for those who need it;
- Blood pressure control;
- Cholesterol management; and
- Smoking cessation.
For more information on keeping your heart healthy or to schedule an appointment to discuss any heart concerns you may have, contact the caring providers of CCHC Heart and Vascular Specialists at 252-63-HEART (634-3278).
(Sources: American Heart Association; U.S. Department of Health and Human Services; National Heart, Lung and Blood Institute; University of Arizona; University of Iowa Health Care; and Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.)