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Heart Disease: The Number-One Threat to Women

It is not the first thing that comes to a woman's mind when concerns about health arise. But it should be!

Many women, (60% of those polled in a recent Gallup survey), believe that the biggest threat to their health is some form of cancer, usually breast cancer. But in actuality, heart attacks or strokes kill twice as many women as all forms of cancer combined. In recent years, more women than men have died from cardiovascular disease in the United States, over 250,000 women each year.

"It is important for women to take the risk of heart disease seriously," says internal medicine physician, Susan Inscore, M.D. "There is an exponential rise in the incidence of the disease after menopause; in later years women have the same risk as men."

Risk Factors

According to the American Heart Association,the following conditions increase the risk of cardiovascular disease. The more risk factors a woman has, the more likely she will have a heart attack or stroke. Some factors cannot be controlled, but others can be treated or modified to lower your risk.

  • Increasing age:
    The chances of developing heart disease increase, as women grow older. As women approach the age of menopause, the risk of heart disease and stroke begins to rise and keeps rising with age. The loss of natural estrogen as women age may contribute to this higher risk after menopause. Although men have heart attacks more frequently and at an earlier age, after menopause more women die of heart attacks.

  • Heredity (family history:
    If you have close blood relatives with heart disease or stroke, you are more likely to develop the condition yourself. Race is also a factor. Black women have a higher risk than other women, largely because of higher average blood pressure levels.

  • Previous heart attack or stroke:
    Women who have had a heart attack or stroke are much more likely to have a second occurrence.

  • High blood cholesterol:
    This is a major risk factor for heart disease and stroke. Studies show that women's cholesterol is higher than men's after age 55. High levels of LDL (low density lipoprotein) or "bad cholesterol" raise the risk of heart disease and heart attack, while high levels of HDL (high density lipoprotein) or "good cholesterol" lower the risk.

Dr. Inscore notes that even the most restrictive diet can only lower cholesterol about ten percent. "There is increasing evidence that high cholesterol may be more hereditary than dietary", she adds. "However, today's cholesterol-lowering medications frequently lower cholesterol by 100 points. The drugs can also decrease existing plaque in the blood vessels and seem to have some effect on inflammation. A heart attack or stroke is often an interactive process between cholesterol-based plaque in the blood vessels, clotting and inflammation."

  • Smoking:
    Smoking is the single most preventable cause of death in the Unites States. Women who smoke, or who are regularly exposed to second-hand smoke,have a much higher risk of death from heart disease. Tobacco use contributes to blood clotting, one of the important components of a heart attack or stroke.

  • High blood pressure:
    Another major risk factor for heart attack and the most important one for stroke, high blood pressure is more likely in women who are 20 pounds or more over a healthy weight. Although 60 percent of women over 65 have high blood pressure, only about 25 percent is diagnosed and treated. If you have a family history of high blood pressure, are pregnant, take certain types of birth control pills or have reached menopause, your chances of high blood pressure are increased.

If You Have Symptoms
Dr. Inscore stresses that the onset of chest pain is a symptom that should not be ignored. "People mistake heart symptoms for gastrointestinal symptoms. But any new chest pain that persists should be taken as a sign to get to a doctor immediately. The clot-busting drugs for treating a heart attack are useful only if given soon enough after the onset of an attack."

The American Heart Association lists the following symptoms as a signal to "call 911 and take an aspirin":

  • Uncomfortable pressure, pain or squeezing in the center of the chest.
  • Pain that moves to your shoulders, neck or arms.
  • Chest discomfort with light-headedness, fainting, sweating, nausea or shortness of breath.
  • Sudden weakness or numbness of the face, arm or leg on one side of the body.
  • Sudden dimness of vision or loss of vision, especially in one eye.
  • Trouble talking or understanding speech.
  • Unexplained dizziness, unsteadiness or sudden falls, especially with other symptoms above.
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