Take a moment and picture somebody who is having a heart attack. If you imagined a man clutching his chest and falling to the ground, you’re probably not alone. This is the image that so often pops up in movies, television and advertising for cardiovascular health. In reality, though, women are just as likely to suffer as men.
In fact, heart disease is the number one cause of death among women in the United States, causing about one in four female deaths each year. Approximately the same number of men and women — around 300,000 each — die from heart disease each year, and they are just as likely to develop coronary artery disease (CAD).
“Cardiovascular disease is one of the most costly and most preventable health problems for women,” said Barbara Dudczak, MD, a Billings Clinic Cardiologist. “One in three women will develop heart disease in their lifetime, yet we spend little time and money on screening and prevention.”
Real Differences, Not Just About the Heart
More and more studies are focusing on women’s heart health highlighting differences in symptoms and treatment. For starters, women usually develop heart disease about 10 years later than men. That crushing chest pain often pictured may not show up in women at all. According to Harvard Medical School, unusual fatigue, sleep disturbance and shortness of breath are the most common symptoms present up to a month before a woman experiences a heart attack. These are the top symptoms for women during a heart attack — only about 1 in 8 women report having chest pain.
“We are different,” Dudczak said. Smaller and lighter arteries and veins make procedures more technically difficult although advances in technology and a better understanding of differences have reduced challenges.
Female diabetes patients are seven times more likely to develop coronary disease than others while men with diabetes fare slightly better by being four times more likely. For women who’ve already had a heart attack, diabetes doubles their risk for a second one.
With cardiovascular disease, it’s easy to think just about the heart. However, it applies to a host of other conditions, including stroke, aortic aneurysms and hypertension. Dudczak notes that this is important because cardiovascular health affects a wide range of systems and plays a key role in overall health. “So much of this now is preventable,” she said. “Even as the symptoms are different, you can take control of this and prevent some very serious health problems.”
Prevention is Key
Pushing past or ignoring early symptoms of cardiovascular disease is easy. For women, work, family and the hustle of everyday life often cause them to neglect their wellbeing. When combined with growing obesity numbers across the U.S., heart and cardiovascular disease is showing up in women at younger ages. An important tool is your primary care physician or cardiologist. Talking about heart health with a physician can help create a personalized plan that addresses any specific needs and goals.
“Don’t be ashamed to ask how your physician can help,” she said. “In fact, both sides — the patient and the physician — should discuss it openly.”
Prevention can go a long way in maintaining heart health. The most important thing, Dudczak said, is to live a healthy lifestyle and maintain a healthy weight. That means eating a healthy and balanced diet low in sodium and Trans fats, avoiding smoking, getting plenty of exercise and maintaining a healthy weight. Not only does this help prevent heart disease, keep a healthy weight, and lower cholesterol and blood pressure levels, it also can help future generations do the same.
“You set a good example for your kids, for your family,” Dudczak said. “You eat right, you exercise. They will see you do that and they will follow your example. That’s an important legacy and we all have that responsibility. I always tell my patients, ‘You want to be there. You want to celebrate your kid’s wedding or graduation.’ This is how you make sure you’re there.”
Billings Clinic offers comprehensive cardiology services to patients from Montana, Wyoming, and the western Dakotas through its award-winning John R. Burg MD Cardiac Center, the region’s longest-running heart program. It offers comprehensive diagnosis, treatment, and rehabilitation care from board-certified cardiologists, surgeons, advanced practitioners, nurses, and more. Heart health matters and patients who practice preventive care can enjoy a healthy, active lifestyle with friends and family. Billings Clinic’s treatment and rehabilitation will help them get back on their feet. For more information, visit www.billingsclinic.com/heart or call 406-238-2000.
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