Louise Spadaro, MD, Catholic Health Cardiologist, answers frequently asked questions about women and heart disease.
Q: Why is heart disease a critical issue for women?
Cardiovascular disease is the leading cause of death in American women—more than all forms of cancer combined. Over 60 million women in the United States live with some form of the disease.
Common types of heart disease include:
- Coronary artery disease. The most common type of heart disease in the United States and a leading cause of heart attacks.
- Arrhythmia. Conditions that cause an irregular heartbeat, such as atrial fibrillation (AFib).
- Heart valve disease. Includes mitral valve prolapse and aortic stenosis.
- Heart failure. Includes cardiomyopathy and congestive heart failure.
Research has shown that only about half of women in the U.S. recognize that heart disease poses the deadliest risk to their lives.
Raising awareness about this health threat can save women’s lives because, despite the grim statistics, heart disease is often preventable.
Q: Does heart disease only affect women of a certain age?
Heart disease affects women at any age. Starting heart-healthy practices early has long-term benefits.
According to the American Heart Association:
- Cardiovascular disease is the number one cause of death for new mothers and accounts for over one-third of maternal deaths. Black women have the highest maternal mortality rates.
- Nearly 45% of females 20 years and older are living with some form of cardiovascular disease.
- Less than 50% of women entering pregnancy have good heart health.
- Menopause does not cause cardiovascular disease, but the midlife point is when a women's risk for coronary artery disease and the risk factors that lead to coronary artery disease increase.
Q: Does heart disease only affect women who have a family history of heart disease?
Women with a family history of heart disease are at higher risk for developing heart conditions. That does not, however, exclude other women who are at risk because of certain health conditions and lifestyle habits. That includes:
- High blood pressure
- High cholesterol
- Unhealthy food choices
- Not exercising regularly
- Not sleeping enough hours
- Being stressed and anxious
Q: How can women take care of their heart?
Women have to prioritize taking care of their overall health. Diet, exercise, sleep and stress all contribute to their well-being today and as they age. Those health needs often take a back seat while juggling jobs, finances, and family. Annual exams and health screenings get delayed.
It is essential for women to realize that self-care is a necessity, including:
- Maintaining a healthy weight with a nutritious diet
- Exercising regularly, including strength training
- Getting enough sleep
- Reducing stress levels
- Not drinking excessively
- Not smoking
- Scheduling an annual exam
- Scheduling health screenings recommended by age
By making those choices, women are less likely to have high blood pressure, high cholesterol and high blood sugar levels—all factors that increase the risk of developing coronary artery disease and having a heart attack.
Also, keeping up with health care appointments helps to catch issues early before complications or more serious conditions develop.
High blood pressure, for example, is often underdiagnosed in women, and fewer than one in four women with high blood pressure have the condition managed. Black women are nearly 60% more likely to have high blood pressure than white women.
Schedule your exams!
How Heart-Healthy Are Your Habits?
Q: Should women routinely see a cardiologist?
A primary care physician (PCP) will recommend that women routinely see a cardiologist, in addition to an annual exam, if they have a family history or other high-risk factors that increase their likelihood of developing cardiovascular disease.
If a woman has no family history or high-risk factors, they should keep up with annual exams and talk to their PCP about when they need to see a cardiologist.
Q: What should women know about heart attacks?
Heart attacks can present differently in women. Women are more likely than men to have heart attack symptoms that may not include chest pain, such as:
- Shortness of breath
- Back pain and jaw pain
- Symptoms at rest
- Symptoms that wake you up from sleep
Q: What else should women know about heart disease?
Advocate for yourself and your health! Heart disease is preventable. No matter your age, you can start heart-healthy habits today. Even if you are not high-risk, regularly check in with your doctor who is your partner on your health care journey.
- Managing high blood pressure
- Managing high cholesterol
- Recognizing heart attack symptoms
- Making healthier food choices
- Walking to lower blood pressure
- Exercising with heart disease
- Living with arrhythmia (AFib)
- Living with heart failure
- How stress affects the heart
- How to quit smoking
- How sleep apnea affects your health
- Types of diabetes
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