It’s time to show your heart some love, especially if you are a woman. When most of us think of someone having a heart attack, we picture a man clutching his chest and struggling to breathe. But did you know that, contrary to common belief, heart disease—which is commonly manifested in the form of heart attacks—is just as common in women as it is in men? According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, heart disease is the most common cause of death in women in the United States. Approximately one in every five female deaths are attributed to heart disease.
What is heart disease and how does it relate to heart attacks?
The term “heart disease” refers to several types of heart conditions. The most common type of heart disease in the United States—and the main cause of heart attacks—is coronary artery disease, which is a buildup of plaque in the walls of arteries that supply blood to the heart and other parts of the body. The heart is a muscular pump that sends blood to the entire human body. As with any other muscle, the heart needs a steady supply of blood and oxygen to function properly. When blood flow to the heart is reduced or blocked, the heart muscle is deprived of necessary oxygen, resulting in a heart attack.
Do genetics play a role?
Although there aren’t specific genes that have been identified as making some women more prone to heart attacks, there are trends that can occur in families. Family history of coronary artery disease, particularly at a younger age (30 to 50) is a strong predictor of increased potential for heart attack, as is race and other inheritable illnesses such as diabetes and high cholesterol. A heart attack can occur at any age, but the average age for women is 70.
Heart attack symptoms
Symptoms of a heart attack are most commonly described as an intense pressure/ache in the chest that may or may not extend to the arms, neck, jaw or stomach. Sometimes, particularly in women, pressure/ache is replaced with more vague symptoms such as:
Shortness of breath
Pain in both arms
Risk factors and prevention
Heart attack risk factors can be grouped into two main categories: modifiable and non-modifiable. Familial history, race and gender are non-modifiable. Modifiable risk factors include other medical diseases such as diabetes, high blood pressure, obesity and tobacco use. Heart attack prevention in women is the same as for men:
Properly manage diabetes, blood pressure and cholesterol with physician-prescribed medications
Make heart-healthy food choices
Maintain a normal body mass index
Perform regular physical activity
Quit smoking — Women who smoke are four times more likely to have heart disease than non-smokers
Love your heart
February is American Heart Month, a time when we can all focus on our cardiovascular health. It’s important because an estimated 80% of cardiovascular disease, including heart disease and stroke, is preventable. To raise and spread awareness, Luminis Health invites you to learn about heart health risks while entering for a chance to win a Lululemon studio mirror (so that you can bring the gym experience to your home). Visit Luminis.Health/MirrorGiveaway for details and to register for a chance to win. Now, that’s something we can all love.
Murtaza Dawood, MD, is a cardiothoracic surgeon at Luminis Health. He is recognized for performing operations for complex valve disease and atrial fibrillation.
Jennifer Brady, MD, is a cardiologist at Luminis Health who is board certified in cardiovascular disease and electrophysiology. She has a special interest in adult echocardiography and heart failure.