Women and Heart Disease

Heart disease has long been considered to be primarily a man’s disease. Although women tend to develop cardiovascular disease about 10 years later in life than men, the outcome for women is often worse. Heart disease is the number one killer of American women, and claims the lives of one in three women.

• 2/3 of US women have at least 1 risk factor;
• >60% are overweight or obese
• 25% have almost NO physical activity
• >50% of women over 45yr have hypertension
• 40% of women over 55 yrs have elevated cholesterol
• Low HDL (<40mg) is a stronger risk factor for older women than older men
• Diabetes increases relative risk 3-7 fold for women

Even though the numbers show that coronary artery disease is an important cause of morbidity and death in women, women do not perceive this risk fully. The AHA national survey indicates that 49% of women incorrectly believe that men are more likely than post-menopausal women to have heart attacks and 61% of women consider cancer to be their greatest health threat vs. 7% for heart disease and 1% for stroke

Know Your Symptoms

Women are less likely than men to believe they’re having a heart attack and more likely to delay seeking emergency treatment. Women also tend to be about 10 years older than men when they have a heart attack. They are more likely to have other conditions, such as diabetes, high blood pressure and congestive heart failure, making it even more important that they get proper treatment quickly.

While women may have the classic symptom of chest pain when experiencing a heart attack, they are also more likely to present with atypical symptoms. Heart attack warning signs include:
• Tightness or a feeling of pressure in the chest
• Pain or heaviness radiating down the left arm, or up to the neck or jaw
• Pain that goes through the chest to the back, between the shoulder blades
• Breaking into a cold sweat
• Heartburn
• Shortness of breath with exertion

Tips for Prevention

Exercise: 30 minutes of moderate intensity physical activity on most days of the week

Stop smoking: UCSF has an excellent smoking cessation program

Follow the Grossman Heart-Healthy, Weight Loss Diet:

Do eat: fish (especially salmon), green and red vegetables, fresh fruit and nuts (especially walnuts and almonds).

Don’t eat: Foods made with flour or sugar (no bread, bagels, muffins, cookies, candies or pasta).

For weight loss: the main thing is to eat smaller portions!

Special cases: dark chocolate OK, especially if without sugar; eggs OK if on statin and LDL cholesterol under control; meat once per week OK.

Physicians also recommend that patients lower high blood pressure, reduce high blood cholesterol and manage their diabetes. “Study after study has shown that people who have this lifestyle are much healthier, have a 50% lower rate of heart attack, and longer lifespan than people who don’t practice those lifestyle habits,” said Dr. Rita Redberg, Director of Women’s Cardiovascular Services at the UCSF National Center of Excellence in Women’s Health. “That’s really the foundation of prevention and risk factor reduction.”