Salt Lake City, Utah (ABC4 UTAH) — “Heart disease is a man’s disease.” “I’m too young.” “Breast cancer is my real threat.”
If you’ve heard or said any of this before, you’re not alone. The reality is that awareness of heart disease in women has decreased over the past decade, whereas the awareness of breast cancer has increased from 2009 to 2019 according to a publication in 2021 in the American Heart Association’s Circulation Journal.
What’s further of concern to heart experts at Intermountain Health and the AHA is that according to the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), only about half of women (56%) know that heart disease is their number one killer.
Here are the facts: heart disease is the leading cause of death for women and men. Heart disease is a killer that strikes more women than men and is more deadly than all forms of cancer combined. While one in 31 American women dies from breast cancer each year, heart disease is the cause of one out of every three deaths. That’s roughly one death each minute.
Heart disease affects women of all ages. While the risk of heart disease increases with age, younger women are not immune to developing heart disease.
For younger women, the combination of birth control pills and smoking boosts heart disease risk by 20 percent. Other risk factors increase with age, things like poor nutrition and a sedentary lifestyle that can cause plaque to accumulate and lead to clogged arteries later in life.
But even if you lead a completely healthy lifestyle, being born with an underlying heart condition can be a risk factor. It’s important to know your family history and discuss this with your health care provider.
Ask your family if there is high cholesterol that runs in your family, if there have been heart attacks in first degree relatives who were younger, and if any of those relatives died suddenly or had heart failure.
Roughly half of people with a heart attack have no symptoms. This leads to delays in diagnosis and treatment. Because these symptoms may vary between men and women, they’re often misunderstood.
“While the telltale sign of a heart attack is chest pain or pressure in both men and women, in reality, many women may also experience other symptoms like shortness of breath, fatigue, nausea/vomiting and back or jaw pain,” said Kismet Rasmusson, DNP, nurse practitioner who specializes in heart failure at the Intermountain Health Heart & Vascular Program.
Rasmusson advises that women should also look to other symptoms, such as dizziness, feeling lightheaded or fainting, pain in the lower chest or upper abdomen and extreme fatigue. This myriad of symptoms if felt to lead to delays in diagnosing heart disease.
Major risk factors for heart disease include high blood pressure, high blood cholesterol, diabetes, obesity or being overweight, smoking, physical inactivity, heredity, and age. Factors that could lead to an increased risk include stress and excessive alcohol consumption.
For women, that means more than one drink a day. We now know that even poor sleep is a risk factor for heart disease.
There are other important risk factors that are identified during pregnancy that increase the risk of developing heart disease in the years after childbirth. These include high blood pressure (in part referred to as eclampsia or pre-eclampsia) and gestational diabetes (diabetes that occurs during pregnancy).
“Your best bet for fighting heart disease is to know which risk factors affect you. The more risk factors you have, the greater your risk for heart disease,” said Rasmusson.
Starting at age 20, women should know their blood pressure and cholesterol levels. High blood pressure often doesn’t have symptoms until it’s severely high and is diagnosed when the readings are consistently greater than 130/80.
The combination of high LDL cholesterol, high triglycerides and low HDL cholesterol increases the risk of a heart attack. Make a plan to get your blood pressure and cholesterol levels checked with your healthcare provider.
“Knowing your risk factors empowers you to make important lifestyle changes to keep your heart healthy,” said Rasmusson.
- Reach and keep a healthy weight. Doing this can reduce your blood pressure, cholesterol, and diabetes risk, hitting three key risk factors at once.
- Trim saturated fat and salt from your diet. When you can, trade butter for heart-healthy canola or olive oil. Swap red meat for seafood, a good source of omega-3 fats that help reduce triglycerides, clotting, and blood pressure.
- Move more. Exercising at a moderate to high intensity for 40 minutes on average, 3 to 4 days a week, can lower your blood pressure, strengthen your heart, decrease stress, and result in weight loss.
- Quit smoking. Smoking is the most common risk factor for women and triples your heart attack risk.
- De-stress daily. Finding ways to defuse stress will help slow your breathing and heart rate as you lower your blood pressure.
- Sleep well, not getting enough sleep is a new risk factor of heart disease. Try to get around 8 hours of sleep every night.
- If you’ve had high blood pressure during pregnancy, make a plan to monitor your blood pressure regularly thereafter.
- Know your family history of heart disease.
“Although women with a family history of heart disease are at higher risk, there’s plenty you can do to reduce your risk,” said Rasmusson. “We recommend that everyone – both men and women – create an action plan to keep their heart as healthy as possible.”
Because of healthy choices and knowing the signs and symptoms of heart disease, more than 670,000 of women have been saved from heart disease, and 300 fewer are dying per day than many years ago according to the American Heart Association.
“Awareness of risk factors is an excellent motivator to do what all of us should be doing anyway – male, female, older and younger,” said Rasmusson. “To achieve the best possible heart health, it is important to maintain a healthy weight, get plenty of rest, exercise regularly, manage stress, eat healthy foods and avoid cigarettes. Discuss your risk profile with your health care team to determine whether you need to do anything further to keep your heart healthy.”
For more information about heart health visit the Intermountain Health website.