The Risk of Heart Disease for Women

Heart disease is the number one killer of women in America, claiming six times as many lives as breast cancer And women are twice as likely as men to die following a heart attack.

It’s NOT SURPRISING THAT WE THINK OF HEART DISEASE AS A MAN’S DISEASE. Heart attacks tend to strike men in their prime, but few women have heart attacks before age 65. Yet overall, heart disease is the number one killer of women in America, claiming six times as many lives as breast cancer. And women are twice as likely as men to die following a heart attack.

RECOGNIZING WARNING SIGNS

Because women are not expected to have heart disease, warning signs are often missed or misdiagnosed. Doctors may inadvertently ignore chest pain or prescribe antacids. When tests are given, false results are more common in women and the results are more often misinterpreted. This may be because standard tests were designed with men in mind. If you experience symptoms of heart disease such as pain on exertion or tightness in the chest, insist on a full cardiological exam.

KNOWING YOUR RISK FACTORS

Some risk factors that women should be aware of include family history, high blood pressure, high blood cholesterol, smoking and birth control pills. Women who both smoke and take birth control pills, for instance, have 39 times the risk of heart disease as those who use neither.

POST-MENOPAUSE-THE BIGGEST RISK FACTOR

The most significant risk factor for heart disease in women is the post-menopausal state. Young women seldom have heart disease because they are protected by estrogen, which seems to slow the buildup of cholesterol and high blood pressure. After menopause this protection disappears and women eventually equal men in the rate of heart disease. Women who take estrogen replacement significantly reduce their chances of heart disease, but may increase their risk of breast, endometrial and other cancers.

WHAT YOU CAN DO

To protect yourself against heart disease, eat a low fat diet (no more than 30 percent of your calories from fat) that is high in fiber and vegetables. Exercise at least three times a week for 20 minutes or more. Don’t smoke, especially if you are taking birth control pills. If you are approaching menopause or are postmenopausal, and you are at risk for heart disease, discuss the pros and cons of estrogen replacement therapy with your doctor.

If you have a heart condition, choose a cardiologist who is familiar with differences in the way women respond to diagnosis and treatment compared to men. Finally, the most important thing you can do is take charge of your own health – no one is in a better position to do it than you.

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