Think about it: The stereotypical heart attack patient on TV is male, right? While that’s often the depiction, the reality is that heart disease is also a women’s health issue.
In fact, heart disease is the leading cause of death among American women, something they have in common with men. But that’s a fact many women are unaware of.
Breast cancer often gets a lot of publicity as a leading cause of deaths among women, but in actuality, one in 31 women die of breast cancer, while one in three die of heart disease. That’s a big difference!
“There are many myths about heart disease,” says Bonna Gollihugh, APRN, family nurse practitioner with West Tennessee Medical Group. “You often hear that heart disease only affects those who are old and only affects men. But it can and does affect women of all ages, often quite unexpectedly.”
The good news is that, while heart health issues among women are fairly common, there are steps you can take to protect your heart. Read on to learn more.
Who’s at Risk of Heart Disease?
Everyone, technically! But certain lifestyle habits and other factors can place you at an increased risk of developing heart issues.
Risk factors for heart disease include:
- Being overweight or obese
- Being physically inactive
- Drinking excessive alcohol
- Eating a diet high in saturated fat and cholesterol
- Having a family history of heart disease
- Having diabetes
- Having high blood pressure
- Having high cholesterol
- Using tobacco
While you can’t control your family medical history, other risk factors are within your control, meaning you can take steps to lower your risk. Practicing healthy lifestyle habits, including exercising regularly, not smoking and eating a balanced diet can help promote better heart health.
What Women Need to Know About Heart Disease
Despite the stereotype, women are just as likely to develop heart disease—and the resulting conditions such as heart attack—as men are.
There is something different, though, that women need to be aware of. Women often experience different and distinct symptoms from their male counterparts, making it harder to know when they’re having a heart attack.
While debilitating chest pain is the symptom you see depicted most often on TV, many women experiencing a heart attack may not even have chest pain. Or, if they do experience chest pain, it may feel different than the “squeezing” sensation men experience.
Women are more likely to experience other symptoms, including pain or pressure in the upper abdomen, fainting, indigestion or extreme fatigue. Dizziness, lightheadedness and fainting are also common.
It’s important to know these symptoms—but even more importantly, if you experience them, you need to seek immediate medical attention. While you might feel silly or guilty about exploring your symptoms, particularly when they may not be serious, there’s a very real chance that they are serious and even life-threatening.
How to Lower Your Risk of Developing Heart Disease
We mentioned briefly above that you can make lifestyle changes to protect your heart. Let’s touch on those changes:
- Don’t smoke. Simple enough, right? If you do smoke, talk with your medical provider about smoking cessation—the positive impacts on your health begin almost immediately after you quit.
- Prioritize sleep. Experts recommend that adults get between seven and nine hours of quality sleep each night. If you’re regularly getting less, you’re probably sleep-deprived. Prolonged sleep deprivation can increase your risk of heart disease.
- Move often. For optimal health, you need at least 150 minutes of moderate physical activity or 75 minutes of strenuous physical activity each week. That’s less than 22 minutes per day—you can fit it into any schedule!
- Eat more fruits and veggies. These healthy foods are packed with vitamins, minerals and antioxidants known to protect your heart and overall health.
- Choose whole grains. The dietary fiber found in whole-grain foods can help lower cholesterol levels and prevent heart disease.
- Add in two servings of fish a week. Fatty fish, such as salmon or tuna, are packed with heart-healthy omega-3 fatty acids. Serve yourself up two four-ounce servings per week, choosing low-mercury options.
- Get your checkups in. Feel healthy and strong? Great! But you still need an annual checkup. This check-in with your medical provider offers an opportunity for labs and other tests that can gauge where your heart stands and potentially detect symptomless conditions like high blood pressure and high cholesterol.
- Give stress the boot. While you can’t entirely eliminate all stress from your life, you can find ways to better manage it, such as meditation or regular exercise.
If it’s been a while since you had a checkup, now’s the time! An annual checkup can help you keep track of your risk factors for heart disease and other medical conditions. FIND A PROVIDER HERE.