10 things every woman should know about heart disease

Women — if you think that heart disease is something you don’t need to worry about, you could be tragically mistaken. This is one disease that most women know far too little about, and it affects far too many of us.

Take 10 minutes to learn the 10 things that every woman needs to know about heart disease:

1. Heart disease is the No. 1 killer of women in the United States.

We worry about breast cancer all the time, but heart attacks kill six times as many women as breast cancer. More women die from heart disease and stroke than from all cancers combined. African American and Hispanic women are at especially high risk of heart disease.

2. Cardiovascular disease kills more women than men.

One potential reason for this higher toll is that the disease may be different in women. In men, it tends to be more localized: a blockage builds up in one spot in a blood vessel, where it can be pinpointed and treated with angioplasty or a bypass graft. In women, it may be more diffuse, or spread out — but it still can be treated.

3. Almost twice as many women as men die within a year of a heart attack.

Why do so many more women die so soon after a heart attack? Women tend to deny their symptoms longer, or fail to recognize their symptoms, which can be different from men’s (see the next item). We often delay seeking medical attention. And we may not be treated as aggressively as men. I hope you’ll help me share these 10 heart disease facts with as many women as possible so we can improve these dismal survival statistics for women.

4. Women’s heart attack symptoms may be different from men’s.

The classic heart attack symptom is chest pain or pressure, but women tend to have symptoms that are atypical — and they can be subtle. The top five symptoms in women are:

  • Fatigue
  • Shortness of breath
  • Indigestion or upper abdominal pain
  • Jaw or throat pain
  • Pain in one or both arms

If you experience one or more symptoms that could indicate a heart attack, call 911 and get to a hospital immediately (don’t drive yourself). Do not delay — every minute that goes by during a heart attack means the death of heart muscle.

5. Smoking more than doubles a woman’s risk for heart attack and stroke.

Smoking increases your blood pressure, causes plaque buildup in your blood vessels, lowers your good HDL cholesterol, and may cause blood clots — all of which increase the risks to your heart. If you smoke, it would do your heart a lot of good to quit. Ask your doctor for help.

6. Women (and men) who are overweight by 30 pounds or more have a greater likelihood of developing heart disease — even if they have no other risk factors.

Is your weight putting your heart at risk? Losing a few pounds could make a big difference. Work with your doctor to set a realistic weight goal and to make a plan to achieve it.

7. High blood pressure doubles a woman’s risk for cardiovascular disease and heart failure.

High blood pressure can sneak up on you without any warning signs. If you don’t know your blood pressure numbers, make a doctor’s appointment to find out. If high blood pressure is an issue for you, learn everything you can about how to bring your numbers down. The goal is a reading of less than 120/80.

8. Diabetes increases the risk of cardiovascular disease and heart failure two– to eight–fold.

If you have diabetes, your heart health depends on how well you manage your disease. Many people develop prediabetes without knowing it; if you haven’t had your blood sugar checked in a while, ask your doctor about it at your next appointment.

9. Heart disease risk increases with high LDL and low HDL cholesterol.

It’s not enough to know your total cholesterol number. The way that number breaks down between LDL (the type of cholesterol that’s lousy for your heart) and HDL (the kind that helps your heart) makes all the difference. Know your numbers and work to keep your HDL high. Aim for LDL below 100 and HDL above 50. If you have been diagnosed with coronary artery disease, your LDL goal should be less than 70.

10. Hormone therapy does not reduce the risk of heart attack in women.

The risk of cardiovascular disease goes up after menopause and, contrary to old beliefs, we now know that hormone replacement therapy, or HRT, does not reduce this risk. In fact, the Women’s Health Initiative study revealed that HRT increases the risk of stroke.

To reduce your risk of heart disease, your best defense is to adopt the American Heart Association’s strategies for a heart–healthy lifestyle:

  • Don’t smoke.
  • Be physically active for at least 30 minutes a day.
  • Eat a heart–healthy diet (DASH or Mediterranean diet).
  • Maintain a healthy weight.
  • Manage your blood pressure.
  • If you have diabetes, control your blood sugar (HbA1c goal: 6.5 percent).
  • Talk to your doctor about depression.
  • Consume alcohol only in moderation (no more than one drink per day).