"Heart disease is by far the number one killer of women in America. Every year, it takes the lives of half a million women…many had no prior symptoms and many others had symptoms that were unrecognized or undiagnosed."
- Dr. Isadore Rosenfeld, Rossi Distinguished Professor of Clinical Medicine/Cardiology, Weill Medical College, Cornell University
CBS Cares decided to take on the issue of women's heart disease when CBS News Medical Correspondent, Dr. Mallika Marshall, brought the matter to our attention. From that communication and from our additional research and discussions with cardiologists, we learned that many women and their doctors do not realize that, after menopause, women are as much at risk of having heart attacks as men. We also learned that heart disease kills more women than all the cancers combined, including breast cancer.
Our motivation to embrace this cause was further strengthened when we learned that women often experience different heart attack symptoms than men. Because this is not widely known, the symptoms are frequently ignored by the patient or misdiagnosed by her doctor. Our research also revealed another little known fact: that certain diagnostic tests may not be as accurate in diagnosing women's heart disease as they are for men.
As a result of the above factors, women's heart attacks are more frequently fatal than those of men.
Here are some staggering facts from Harvard Medical School's Consumer Health Information Website and the American Heart Association, which convey the risks and dangers of Women's Heart Disease:
• One woman dies from heart attack or stroke every single minute in the U.S.
• About 6.6 million American women have heart disease.
• Heart disease is the number one killer of women over the age of 25 killing nearly 500,000 women every year.
• At menopause, a woman's heart disease risk starts to rise significantly. One in four women over 65 has heart disease.
• In a survey by the American Heart Association, 63 percent of women name breast cancer as their greatest health risk (nine times as many who named heart disease as their greatest risk).
• Heart disease claims twice as many women's lives as all forms of cancer combined, including breast cancer. Whereas about one in 30 women die of breast cancer...more than one in two die from heart attack or stroke. (More than ten times the number of breast cancer deaths).
• Every year since 1984, more women than men have died of heart disease.
• For years, heart disease has been considered a man's disease, but postmenopausal women are just as likely to develop heart disease as men and when they do have a heart attack or stroke, it's more likely to be fatal in women.
• Sixty percent of women who die suddenly from coronary heart disease have no previous symptoms.
• Women are less likely to notice they have a heart problem.
• Many symptoms of heart disease in women may mimic other conditions, such as acid reflux or depression.
• Women with heart disease often have symptoms different from men...instead of chest pain or pressure, they may report shortness of breath, fatigue, indigestion and anxiety.
• Making a diagnosis of heart disease in women is often more challenging than it is in men. The tests that are used to determine whether patients are likely to have heart disease, such as exercise stress tests, are often less reliable in women.
BASIC RISK FACTORS
There are certain risk factors that can't be changed, such as aging and genetics; however many can be controlled and it is important to be aware of them so you can significantly reduce your risk of developing heart disease.
• High Cholesterol
High cholesterol levels put you at an increased risk for developing heart disease and are a strong indicator of the potential for the disease. LDL cholesterol is known as the 'bad' cholesterol and the main source of blockage in the arteries. HDL cholesterol is known as 'good' cholesterol and helps keep bad cholesterol from building up in the arteries. Higher HDL levels are better because these protect against heart disease. Do you know your numbers and whether or not they are within a healthy range? If the answer is no, then you should make an appointment to see your doctor, have your HDL and LDL levels checked and find out if the numbers are acceptable. You should also find out your Triglyceride level. Triglycerides are another form of fat in your blood.
• High Blood Pressure
Alone, high blood pressure makes women more susceptible to heart disease. High blood pressure in the presence of other risk factors can dramatically increase a woman's risk of developing heart disease. High blood pressure increases the heart's workload, causing the heart to become enlarged. Over time this will weaken the heart.
• Being Obese or Overweight
Even if you don't have any other risk factors having excess body fat makes you more susceptible to heart disease. Taken alone excess body fat increases the strain on your heart. Unfortunately, being overweight also influences blood pressure, cholesterol, triglyceride levels, and increases one's risk of developing diabetes. Do you know how many calories you consume each day? Recommendations for how many calories you should consume depend on your age, weight, and your level of physical activity. Generally, you should consume no more than 2,000 calories each day, yet the average American consumes 3,700 calories a day.
• Physical Inactivity
How much do you exercise each week? If you do not exercise regularly then you are at a greater risk for heart disease. Regular exercise at a moderate to vigorous level keeps the heart healthy. So, if you're not very active, get active. Even moderate activity done regularly can get your heart on a healthier path.
If you're a smoker, you should quit right away. A smoker's risk of developing heart disease is double that of a non-smoker. Smoking is the biggest risk factor for sudden cardiac death with smokers having two to four times greater risk than non-smokers. Plus, smokers who suffer a heart attack are more likely to die than non-smokers. All of the doctors we spoke to agree that smoking is extremely detrimental to your heart's health.
If you have diabetes, is it under control? Diabetes seriously increases your risk of developing heart disease. Even if glucose levels are being monitored the risk is still present. More than 80 percent of people with diabetes will die of some heart or blood vessel disease. If you have diabetes it is critical that you control other risk factors to help lower your overall risk.
How Can A Woman's Heart Attack Be Different Than A Man's?
In our research we came across an alarming number of stories of women who thought they were sick with the flu or indigestion when in reality they were having a heart attack. Unlike men, the majority of whom experience chest pain, women are more likely to experience elusive symptoms such as nausea and fatigue. The lucky women were the ones who took the initiative to go to the doctor and who were properly diagnosed. Sadly, according to an article in Managing Menopause "as many as one-third of all heart attacks in women aren't recognized as such; often, the symptoms are misdiagnosed as indigestion or gallbladder disease."
When many women think of a heart attack they think of what the American Heart Association describes as a "movie heart-attack"-one that is sudden and intense. This is more representative of a typical man's experience than a woman's. Most men have crushing chest pain, but 15 to 20 percent of women who have a heart attack report having very different symptoms. Many women complain of pain in the high part of the abdomen, shortness of breath, and excessive sweating. Women may also complain of chronic fatigue, indigestion, pain in the back or jaw, and heart palpitation right before or during the heart attack. Too many women suffer from fatal heart attacks because they didn't know what to look out for.
Heart disease is more likely to be fatal for women than it is for men. This may be because women's symptoms are not as well known as men's, which prevents many women from seeking help. Know that as a woman your symptoms are different and unique, so you can seek help and possibly save your life.
The Harvard Medical School's Consumer Health Information Website provides readers with additional information on women's heart disease. www.intelihealth.com
For further information, you can visit the National Coalition for Women with Heart Disease. www.womenheart.org
The American Heart Association also has information on women's heart disease. www.americanheart.org