Women & Heart Disease: Take Steps Now to Reduce Your Risk
Although heart disease is often thought of as “a man’s problem,” the reality is that all women are at risk for heart disease. In a survey by the American Heart Association, women worry more about getting breast cancer, even though heart disease kills six times as many women every year. Women of all ages must protect their heart health and understand the signs and symptoms of heart disease. Learn the risk factors and take steps to prevent heart disease. Here are some facts and tips from the experts that will do your heart good.
What is Coronary Heart Disease?
“Coronary heart disease, also called coronary artery disease, occurs when plaque builds up on the inner walls of the coronary arteries,” says David Portugal, M.D., medical director of the catheterization lab at Memorial Hermann Heart & Vascular Institute—Southwest. “The arteries are important because they carry oxygen-rich blood to the heart. Problems occur when the plaque hardens, causing the coronary arteries to narrow, thus reducing the flow of oxygen-rich blood to the heart. It may result in chest pain or discomfort.”
Plaque is composed of fat, cholesterol, calcium and other substances found in the blood. If plaque ruptures, a blood clot can form on its surface. A large blood clot can block the blood flow through a coronary artery. This is the most common cause of heart attacks in both men and women.
Risk Factors You Can’t Control
For women, age becomes a risk factor at 55. At menopause, ovaries stop making estrogen, increasing a woman’s risk of plaque buildup in the arteries.
Women with a father or brother who developed heart disease before age 55 are at higher risk. Women with a mother or sister who developed heart disease before age 65 are also at higher risk.
Risk Factors You Can Control
There are lifestyle changes a woman can make at any age to reduce her risk of heart disease.
- Follow a heart-healthy diet low in saturated fat, cholesterol and salt.
- Get regular exercise daily.
- Don’t smoke.
“Although in general, women tend to develop heart disease about 10 years later than men, this does not hold true for women with diabetes or women with a significant family history of early heart disease,” says Susan Laing, M.D., UTHealth cardiovascular disease specialist affiliated with Memorial Hermann Heart & Vascular Institute-Texas Medical Center. “In these women, we see heart disease much earlier. Also after menopause, women catch up with men with regards to the likelihood of getting heart disease.”
While traditional risk factors, such as high blood pressure and obesity, apply to both men and women, some risk factors have a stronger impact in the development of heart disease in women.
- Diabetes increases the risk of heart disease significantly more in women than in men.
- Metabolic syndrome (a combination of fat around the abdomen, high blood pressure, high blood sugar and high triglycerides) has a greater impact on women than men.
- Mental stress and depression affect women’s hearts more than men’s.
- Smoking is a greater risk factor for women than for men.
- Pregnancy complications can increase a woman’s long-term risk of high blood pressure and diabetes and can increase the risk of development of heart disease in both the mother and her children.
According to the American Heart Association, 80 percent of cardiac and stroke events may be prevented with education and action. Don’t forget to make your heart health a priority. Schedule your annual checkup to measure blood pressure, check cholesterol and look for signs of heart disease, stroke and other illnesses.
For more wellness tips, visit the Memorial Hermann Everyday Well blog.