Heart disease is LCOD in women, but women are not aware

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By Lisa Larkin, MD, FACP, NCMP, IF Founder and CEO, Ms.Medicine

We must do more to educate women about the warning signs.

For so long, heart disease was considered a “man’s disease,” and women need not take notice. But the evidence shows us that this is patently false: in fact, heart disease is the leading cause of death (LCOD) for women. The Center for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) notes that nearly one in five deaths in women is caused by heart disease. However, awareness about the dangers of heart disease among women is actually decreasing, according to a new study—a troublesome finding.

What the Study Found

A report published in September 2020 in the American Heart Association’s journal Circulation is based on longitudinal study which surveyed women in 2009 and in 2019 on their awareness of heart disease as the leading cause of death in women. The authors note that while the greatest proportion of women in both studies were aware that heart disease is the LCOH in women, that awareness decreased in 2019 – among women of all ages and races (except those 65 and older). The study authors note that these results “suggest an urgent call to action to identify underlying causes of the concerning trends in women’s awareness and to redouble efforts to reverse them.”

What Women Need to Know

Heart disease IS the leading cause of death in women, and women need to know their risks. The American Heart Association recommends women schedule an annual wellness exam with their physician to review risk factors that can be managed, as well as those that have an impact on heart disease (such as age, gender, etc.)  Your physician uses data based on your individual numbers across a variety of tests, such as blood pressure, total cholesterol, blood sugar and Body Mass Index (BMI) score to determine your risk of developing heart disease. Additionally, your physician can work with you to manage your risks, either through lifestyle modifications or medication.

We also know that the risk of heart disease increases with age and family history – factors your physician will consider during your wellness exam.

What Are the Signs?

For years, researchers and physicians thought all heart attack symptoms looked the same—in both men and women. We now know that’s not the case. While men tend to experience what we think of as “classic” symptoms – crushing chest pain, difficulty breathing, irregular heartbeat – women’s symptoms differ and can often be more subtle. Women tend to experience symptoms such as nausea, extreme fatigue, lightheadedness and dizziness, sweating and pain in one or both arms, jaw, upper back and neck—symptoms often mistaken for other conditions.

What You Can Do

There are steps you can take to prevent heart disease. Like many other diseases, how we live our lives can have great impact on our future health.

  1. Stop smoking. Smokers face a 2 to 4-times greater risk for developing heart disease or having a stroke. If you are smoker, the number one thing that you can do to immediately improve your health is to stop. Your doctor can help.
  2. Get moving. Sedentary lifestyle leads to obesity, diabetes and depression. Exercise helps us lose weight or maintain a healthy one, strengthen our hearts and lungs, improves cholesterol, blood pressure and decreases our chance for diseases including cancer and heart disease. Make time for daily activity and build exercise into your routine.
  3. Follow a healthy diet. A heart-healthy diet includes a balance of high-fiber food such as fruits and vegetables, legumes, whole grains and nuts, plus “healthy” fats, like those found in certain fish and avocados. Heart healthy diet also means limiting foods that are high in saturated fats and cholesterol, such as red meat. Finally, enjoy alcohol in moderation (one glass per day for women, two for men.)

Work with your physician to better understand your risks for developing heart disease, and how to manage them.

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