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Women’s Heart Health

We all know how terrible breast cancer is. The disease kills one out of every 30 women. There is an international foundation that provides education and awareness. Everyone has seen the pink ribbon. They are doing great things to help fight a devastating disease.

But did you know that heart disease accounts for 39% of all female deaths in the United States? That means one out of every 2.6 women will die of heart disease, nearly 12 times the number that die from breast cancer. That is a very serious statistic. How much do you know about your heart health?

What is heart disease?

Heart disease is a very broad term because the heart has several of components. First, there are four chambers and four valves that contain the blood and direct its flow into and out of the heart and lungs. Then there is a complex electrical system that sends pulses down various pathways to cause the heart to beat. And finally, there are the arteries that provide the heart muscle with its blood supply. They are important because they carry blood, which contains nutrients and oxygen that allow the heart to survive and function properly. Maintaining the health of these arteries is integral in the prevention of heart attacks.

The arteries of the heart are called the coronary arteries. Over time, a buildup of cholesterol can occur in the walls of the arteries. This buildup is called plaque. It can become so significant that it can create a blockage in the artery preventing the blood from moving through normally, and therefore starving the heart muscle. Even if the blockage is minimal, it can be very unstable and rupture, resulting in a heart attack.

It is often said that women feel symptoms of heart disease differently. This can be true. However, the most common symptoms in men are still the most common symptoms in women. The classic symptom of coronary artery disease is chest pain, but the term “pain” can be very misleading. It is more likely to be described as a discomfort — heaviness, pressure or tightness. Some women say that it feels like their bra is too tight. Other symptoms include shortness of breath, nausea, heartburn and discomfort in the arm, shoulder or lower jaw.

How do I prevent heart disease?

In order to prevent heart disease, it is important to understand your risk factors.

Did you know that diabetics have an increased risk of heart disease? They have the same risk of having a heart attack as someone who has already had one.

High blood pressure also increases your risk. The higher your numbers, the higher your risk. High cholesterol can mean more cholesterol buildup in the arteries and more plaque.  But it is not just about your total cholesterol number because there are two types of cholesterol, the good and the bad.  It is best to have high good cholesterol and low bad cholesterol.

Smoking is often talked about with regards to its danger in causing cancer. But it also puts you at high risk for heart disease. Women who smoke are 6-9 times more likely to have a heart attack than those who do not smoke. And, for those long term smokers who think the damage is already done, think again. If you quit today, your risk is cut in half within one year. And it will continue to decline the longer you remain smoke-free.

Prevention requires knowledge. Know your risks. Some you can control — like smoking and exercise. Some you can help improve — like diabetes, high cholesterol and high blood pressure. Others you can’t control — like genetics and family history. See your doctor for a heart health check up. Know your numbers. And discuss what changes you can make in your life today to improve your health for tomorrow.

Deborah Sambucci, DO, is a clinical cardiologist with the Heart House

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