Health & Wellness
The Womens Heart Health Epidemic

The Womens Heart Health Epidemic

Get the facts on women’s heart health
By Deena Spell

On February 1, you may see a lot of women wearing the color red. This isn't an early celebration of Valentine's Day; it's a celebration of life. In 2002, The Heart Truth, sponsored by the National Heart, Lung and Blood Institute, was launched to raise awareness for women about heart disease.

Since then, the red dress has been one of the symbols of heart health awareness, and National Wear Red Day was born.

As the awareness continues to gain momentum, women's heart health has gone from a virtually unspoken topic to one of the deadliest epidemics facing women today.

Our hearts are tasked with many different things. We are told to have a heart, follow our heart and get to the heart of the matter in a hurry. It's no secret that the heart is a vital organ, so why do so many of us neglect its health until it's too late?

According to the American Heart Association, heart disease remains the number one killer of women. Almost two-thirds of the women who die suddenly of coronary heart disease had no previous symptoms, so knowing the signs and understanding your risks are the first steps toward taking a stand against heart disease.

heart-heath1Pay Attention To The Signs

Although it's more common to associate heart disease with men, that doesn't mean women are safe from the devastating effects of a sudden heart attack. Much of the research on heart disease has been focused on men, since it was believed that they were at a higher risk. However, as the fatality numbers have increased, there is now more focus on educating women about this disease.

Until recently, women's biggest health scare was breast cancer. But more than 200,000 women die each year from heart attacks - five times as many as breast cancer, according to The National Coalition for Women with Heart Disease. Still, many women don't know the signs and symptoms of heart disease.

Since 1984, more women than men have died of heart disease, according to statistics from the American Heart Association. There are numerous factors for this, but some doctors believe that women are more likely to think a heart attack is just stress because the symptoms aren't always the same in every patient. That one mistake can be the last one you make. But all of this can change by simply paying a little more attention to your heart.

Missing the early signs of a heart attack is more common than some people think. Northside Hospital cardiologist Dr. Kimberly Champney says this may be due to simple misinterpretation. "They may have shortness of breath and attribute it to an acute illness like a cold or flu," she says. "Many patients mistake chest discomfort or chest pain as heartburn or other gastrointestinal (GI) symptoms."

Symptoms for heart disease and heart attack can vary. It isn't always going to be a sudden pain in the chest. Gender, age and other medical issues are just a few of the things that can cause a wide range of symptoms.

"The most common symptom for all people is some kind of discomfort in the chest," Dr. Champney says. "Many people do not describe true pain in their chest but will complain of heaviness, pressure or fullness in the chest. Others present with complaints of pain or discomfort in their arm, back or jaw. Many times the only symptom can be shortness of breath. This symptom is common in women, elderly patients and those with diabetes."

It seems innocent enough to mistake something serious with something common and simple, but if there's ever concern about what you're feeling, the best advice is always the same: get help. If you are experiencing one or more of these symptoms continuously, it's best to go to the hospital and get checked out.

heart-heath2Know Your Risk

It's a well known fact that the first step in getting better from anything is admitting there's a problem in the first place. Most doctors agree that it isn't enough to know the signs and symptoms of a heart attack; it's also important to understand your personal risk for developing it.

According to Dr. Gina Prince Lundberg, Medical Director of St. Joseph's Hospital Heart Center for Women, the greatest risk for heart disease in women is an easily avoidable condition we're all familiar with. "The risk factor for heart disease in women is diabetes," she says. "Hypertension and high cholesterol get lots of attention because these numbers are easy to follow and easily treated. But several important and little known risk factors are chronic kidney disease and rheumatologic disorders such as Lupus and rheumatoid arthritis."

But diabetes isn't the only high risk factor in developing heart disease for women. According to, depression and lack of sleep are other risk factors women don't consider. This could be because those negative circumstances lead to negative coping strategies, like not eating healthy or exercising. There are plenty of risk factors to familiarize yourself with if you want to stay heart healthy.

"Menopause is associated with your good cholesterol going down, HDL, and your bad cholesterol, LDL, going up," Dr. Lundberg says. "Also, after menopause, women have more difficulty with weight gain around the belly and higher blood glucose levels. The metabolism decreases and the muscle mass drops. All these things are associated with increased risk of heart disease."

Most doctors suggest that women should start getting screened for heart disease before age 50 if heart disease runs in the family. Dr. Sara Mobasseri of Piedmont Heart Institute says that knowing your history (family and medical) and your numbers (fasting cholesterol, fasting blood sugars, blood pressure and body mass index) are key to staying proactive about the health of your heart.

heart-heath3Reduce Your Risk

If you are at high risk for developing heart disease, there is a lot you can do to keep your ticker ticking for years to come. Getting your daily exercise isn't just for having a svelte figure for weddings and beach vacations. The difference exercise can make in your health is unanimously agreed on by all medical professionals.

"One very large study has shown that about 80 percent of heart disease can be prevented by maintaining a proper weight, diet, regular exercise and no tobacco use," Dr. Champney says.

According to The Women's Heart Foundation, women are twice as likely to die after a heart attack than men. Women also have heart disease about 10 years later than men. Dr. Lundberg says this isn't a medical anomaly.

"The problem is that women think they are less at risk and do not follow their risk factors aggressively," Dr. Lundberg says. "Also, they do not seek medical attention when they start to have symptoms or signs of heart disease."

The epidemic of heart disease in women could also be attributed to the fact that most women see their role as the caretaker of the lives around them and not necessarily their own. They are so busy taking care of others in their family that they often let their own health become a sidebar in their life. Dr. Mobasseri explains that the lower survival rate of women with heart issues is mainly due to one thing. "Because (women) are older when they have a heart attack, they have more associated medical problems including diabetes, high blood pressure, high cholesterol, etc., and as a result, their outcomes or prognosis after a heart attack may be less favorable."

In the end, it's all up to you. Familiarize yourself with your family history, get regular health screenings, pay attention to the subtle things your heart is telling you, and on February 1 wear your support by getting out that little red dress.

Editorial Resources
American Red Cross
American Heart Association
Dr. Kimberly Champney, Northside Hospital
Dr. Gina Prince Lundberg, St. Joseph's Hospital
Dr. Sara Mobasseri, Piedmont Heart Institute
Women's Heart Foundation

sarah-battsStory from a Survivor

On July 7, 2012, 41-year-old Sarah Batts chose not to become a statistic. She sought help from a friend who recognized Batts was at risk for a cardiac event. Together, they went to the emergency room.

"I was second guessing myself the whole way to the ER," Batts said. "My only symptom was severe jaw pain."

Not long after she was taken to the cardiac observation unit, Batts had a heart attack. Her recovery is ongoing and she participates in cardiac rehabilitation at Piedmont Atlanta Hospital.

Her experience has left her an advocate for heart health. She urges women to pay attention to their bodies and arm themselves with as much knowledge as possible.

How has your life changed since having a heart attack?
When you have a heart attack and survive, there's so many different aspects of recovery you don't ordinarily think of. It's not just a physical recovery but an emotional and psychosocial recovery. Luckily, I have doctors and caregivers with me through every aspect of my recovery, helping me to adjust to my new lifestyle. I focus more on ways to reduce stress, eat properly and watch my numbers to keep my risk of having another heart attack as low as possible.

What are you doing differently today to stay healthy?
I was already pretty active prior to my heart attack and was actually training for a 5K when it happened. Today, I continue to exercise as part of my Atlanta's cardiac rehabilitation program. My diet has changed a lot as well. I work with a nutritionist who keeps me on track and has taught me how important diet is to overall health.

What advice would you give to other women?
It is so important to know your family's history of heart disease and to be aware of your numbers. Six months prior to my heart attack, I had all my blood work done and everything was normal. My family's history of heart disease played a very significant role in my own health scare and I knew that just because I wasn't having chest pain, that didn't mean I wasn't experiencing a heart attack. Knowing the signs and symptoms is key – I recommend every woman take these signs seriously and don't brush them off or attribute them to other things.

Recommended Schedule for Screening Tests

Blood pressure
Each regular healthcare visit or at least once every 2 years if blood pressure is less than 120/80 mm Hg

Cholesterol ("fasting lipoprotein profile" to measure total, HDL and LDL cholesterol, and triglycerides)
Every 5 years for normal-risk people; more often if any of the following apply to you:
• Total cholesterol above 200 mg/dL
• You are a man over age 45 or a woman over age 50
• Your HDL (good) cholesterol is less than 40 mg/dL (if you're a man) or less than 50 mg/dL (if you're a woman)
• You have other risk factors for heart disease and stroke

Weight/Body Mass Index (BMI)
Each regular healthcare visit

Waist circumference
As needed to help evaluate cardiovascular risk

Blood glucose test
Every 3 years after 45 years of age. A normal blood sugar level is 70 to 140 mg/dL. A fasting blood sugar is typically 70 to 100 mg/dL, after consuming a meal the range is 135 to 140 mg/dL.

Discuss smoking, physical activity, diet
Each regular healthcare visit

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