By Jessica Park
In the movies, men get heart attacks, women get their hearts broken. But reality is harsher — according to the American Heart Association, 1 in 3 women in the United States die of cardiovascular disease and stroke each year. (By comparison, 1 in 31 American women die annually of breast cancer.)
Despite the serious consequences, heart disease can’t shake the image of being an “old man’s disease.” More than half of women who die suddenly from coronary artery disease weren’t receiving treatment or didn’t report symptoms, and women are less likely than men to survive their first heart attack and more likely to die at an earlier age.
Most women have heart disease due to atherosclerosis, a condition caused when plaque builds up inside the arteries, narrowing them and restricting blood flow. If a blood clot forms in the arteries, it can result in a heart attack or stroke.
Heart disease in women also commonly appears as congestive heart failure, a condition when the heart can’t pump enough blood to keep the body adequately supplied with oxygen; arrhythmia, or irregular heartrate; and heart valve problems.
Like in men, the main risk factors for heart disease in women include congenital heart conditions, family history of heart disease, aging, obesity, diabetes, overeating, physical inactivity and smoking.
Hormonal changes can be another risk factor for women. Women who take birth control pills may have higher blood pressure and face increased risk of heart disease if they also have a history of smoking. Physical changes caused by menopause have been linked to an increased risk of heart attack.
Women tend to experience different symptoms of coronary heart disease and heart attacks than men. Most people think of chest pains and cold sweats as signs of a heart attack, but women are more likely to experience back pain, jaw pain, shortness of breath, nausea and vomiting, or fatigue, sometimes weeks before a heart attack occurs. It can be easy to mistake these symptoms as less severe conditions, such as a toothache or upset stomach.
Research is still being done on why women experience these different symptoms, but learning to recognize them and seeking medical attention as soon as possible can make a critical difference.
Apart from misperceptions of heart disease, another reason women may ignore symptoms or not see their physician is the tendency to put their family’s health care needs ahead of their own. Also, some health care providers may fail to recognize symptoms of heart disease more often experienced by women.
Fortunately, the best way to prevent heart disease is through self-care. The American Heart Association reports that up to 80 percent of heart disease is preventable through lifestyle changes.
• Eat a healthy, balanced diet.
• Lose weight or maintain a healthy weight.
• Get regular exercise — the AHA recommends 40 minutes of physical activity, like brisk walking, three times a week.
• Stop smoking (or don’t start).
• Keep track of your blood pressure, cholesterol, blood glucose and weight.
Even if you’ve been diagnosed with coronary artery disease or take prescriptions to manage cholesterol or high blood pressure, healthier lifestyle changes can still make a difference.
Advocate for your own health, just as you would for your family. Schedule — and keep — annual examinations with your primary care provider. Discuss when you should be screened for indicators of heart disease. Often heart disease starts before you notice symptoms.
If heart disease runs in your family or you have risk factors your provider might not know about, tell them.
If you take oral contraceptives, discuss any concerns you have about your risk of heart disease and whether you should consider alternative methods.
And trust your intuition. If you’ve been experiencing symptoms like back, stomach and jaw pain, nausea or shortness of breath and strongly feel like something is wrong, seek emergency medical help immediately.