Heart disease is the leading cause of death among women in the United States. In fact, 1 in 4 women will die from heart disease. But though heart disease can be deadly, there are ways to lower the risk and even prevent what many refer to as the ‘silent killer’.
First, let’s establish what heart disease is. The term refers to conditions that can afflict the heart, the most common being coronary artery disease (CAD). When coronary arteries are blocked and have less blood flow, the risk of a heart attack rises. As those pathways reduce blood flow, not only can it lead to a heart attack, it also makes surgeries required to manage heart malfunctions more difficult. Surgeries like angiography, angioplasty, and coronary bypass are more challenging to perform on women because they have smaller coronary arteries than men.
Second, to understand how to combat this disease, it’s important to dispel some common myths.
Myth: Heart attacks are hard to miss. I’ll know it when I feel it.
Fact: Movies typically present heart attacks as dramatic events with men experiencing crushing chest pain, and clutching their left arm. But for women, common symptoms include shortness of breath, heartburn, fatigue, cold sweat, dizziness, nausea and discomfort in your upper body -- but often not severe pain and pressure. Women are more likely to die from a heart attack because the symptoms often go unnoticed, or are confused as something else.
Myth: I don’t need to worry about heart disease until I’m older.
Fact: The way you live now will drastically affect your health in 10, 20 and 30 years. Whether you’re young or old, your health should always be a priority. Heart healthy habits that begin in your 20s and 30s can have a major impact on your risk level as you get older.
Myth: Heart disease runs in my family so there’s nothing I can do about it.
Fact: Though genetics can increase your risk for heart disease, the biggest factor by far is lifestyle, such as what you eat, if you smoke and whether or not you exercise regularly.
Myth: Heart disease is more common in men than women.
Fact: While the past 40 years have seen a reduction in heart attacks in men, the same has not held true for women. More women die of coronary heart disease each year than men and it remains the number one cause of death in both women and men.
Since heart disease is a serious health concern that should be on every woman’s radar, it’s important to consider these risk factors:
- Low activity level: If you’re not exercising regularly, you increase the risk for plaque buildup in your arteries. Exercising makes the heart beat faster, pumping more blood and oxygen around your body, thus improving circulation and lowering cholesterol, which can help prevent buildup. This doesn’t mean you have to run a marathon. Find something you enjoy doing, like walking or zumba, and try to do it for 30 minutes each day.
- High blood pressure: It’s important to know your blood pressure and what the numbers mean. The guidelines have changed, and anything over 120/80 is now considered elevated or high blood pressure. If you have high blood pressure, it’s crucial to monitor it regularly and work with your doctor to lower it through lifestyle modifications and medication, if necessary. If you haven’t had your blood pressure checked recently, make sure to do so as soon as possible. This is especially important with the lifestyle changes and added stress most women have experienced during the pandemic.
- High cholesterol levels: Bad cholesterol (low-density lipoprotein, or LDL) directly affects buildup in your arteries, so it’s a critical factor to consider when trying to prevent heart disease. Lower the amount of red meat, dairy and fried foods you eat. These foods are especially high in cholesterol and saturated fats. To increase your good cholesterol (high-density lipoprotein, or HDL), consistently exercise and consume healthy fats, such as olive oil, coconut oil, fish and nuts.
- Smoking: Smoking is an often overlooked risk factor for heart disease. If you currently smoke, it’s important to stop. Smoking lines your arteries with sticky chemicals that increase the risk of buildup and clogging.
- Alcohol use: Drinking excessively (more than one drink per day for women) is harmful to your health on many levels. Not only does it damage your liver, but it also releases harmful toxins into the bloodstream that thin the lining of your heart, and decrease blood flow.
- Manage stress: High levels of stress release a surge of hormones into the bloodstream, temporarily increasing your blood pressure. With COVID-19, stress levels are higher than ever and it’s important to find healthy ways to manage stress and anxiety, such as meditation, exercise, yoga and working with a therapist, if necessary.
No matter your age, all women should take steps toward better heart health. It’s never too late but if you aren’t sure where to start, the Women’s Heart Center at El Camino Health can help. The center specializes in preventative care, and provides personalized treatment plans based on your specific risk factors and lifestyle. Learn more.
This article first appeared in the February 2021 edition of the HealthPerks newsletter.