By Brad Marshland –
Since 1984, more women than men have died each year from heart disease. Heart disease is now the No. 1 killer of women, causing more deaths than all cancers combined. And yet only 56 percent of American women realize that heart disease is their greatest health threat. To combat this gap in understanding – and the heart disease epidemic itself – Barbra Streisand has co-founded the Women’s Heart Alliance, a collaboration between the Barbra Streisand Women’s Heart Center at Cedars-Sinai Hospital in Los Angeles and the Ronald O. Perelman Heart Institute at NewYork-Presbyterian/Weill Cornell Medical Center.
“Women’s hearts are different from men’s,” says Streisand. Yet women comprise only 24 percent of participants in all heart-related studies. The Women’s Heart Alliance recently launched Fight the Ladykiller, a nationwide campaign to promote greater research and understanding of how heart disease affects women and men differently. Fight the Ladykiller encourages women to talk to their health care providers, understand their personal risks and get their hearts checked.
Heart disease affects women of all ages, but according to Dr. Holly Andersen, director of education and outreach at the Ronald O. Perelman Heart Institute, “The number of young women between the ages of 29 and 45 dying of heart disease is actually increasing and has been doing so since the year 2000” – because the risk factors for heart disease are increasing, particularly diabetes, obesity and stress. Additional risk factors women should be aware of include:
• Family history
• High blood pressure
• High cholesterol
• Low physical activity
• Past complications in pregnancy:
◦ High blood pressure
• Auto-immune disorders, such as:
◦ Rheumatoid arthritis
• Menopause before age 45
• Migraines with aura
The good news is that even if you have a number of these risk factors, there’s still a lot you can do to prevent heart disease.
“One of the great things about being a cardiologist,” says Andersen, “is that there’s so much we can do to prevent heart disease, and prevention is crucial.” While you can’t change your family history, you can change your diet, exercise more and stop smoking. Even simple activities like getting together with friends for a laugh can go a long way toward reducing stress, and therefore reducing your risk of heart attack and stroke.
Heart attack symptoms are different in women
Decades of Hollywood movies have trained us to think that a heart attack always looks like a man clutching his chest or arm. And while women suffering a heart attack often experience chest pain, this classic symptom only occurs in 60 percent of women. Other common symptoms are more subtle:
• Chest pressure
• Shortness of breath
• Indigestion, nausea or vomiting
• Pain in arms, neck, jaw or stomach
• Overwhelming fatigue
• Cold sweats
If you think you might be having a heart attack, call 911. Says Andersen: “I’d rather be taking care of indigestion in the emergency room than miss a heart attack.” And even if you’re not showing immediate symptoms, discussing heart disease should be part of any routine checkup.