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Changing Lifestyles, Changing Habits: More on Women and Heart Disease

separator Women seem to be learning that heart disease is the number one killer of females, but there’s a lot more to the picture than that. Women seem not to know what their particular risk factors are, what their heart attacks symptoms might be and what the best prevention and treatment options are for them. Consider these facts:
  • Women are half as likely as men to survive their first heart attack.
  • 38 percent of women and 25 percent of men die within one year of a heart attack.
  • Women are more likely than men to have a second heart attack within one year.
  • Women are twice as likely as men to die after bypass surgery.
  • One in every three American women dies of heart disease.
  • Women tend to have fewer of the more commonly known heart attack symptoms. This can make their heart attacks more difficult to diagnose, which can lead to a delay in crucial treatment.
  • Nearly two thirds of American women who died of a heart attack had no prior symptoms.

Risk factors you can control
The factors that increase your risk for developing heart disease—and that you can do something about, include:

  • Smoking. If you quit, your risk decreases by half after one year.
  • High blood pressure. Do you know what your blood pressure is? The first step you can take to control blood pressure is to find out whether yours is in the healthy range or whether you need to make lifestyle changes to bring it down. If it’s high, your doctor will talk with you about the kind of food you should eat and the kind you should avoid, how to work exercise into your schedule if you don’t already and whether you should take medication.
  • High cholesterol and triglycerides. Once again—do you know what your blood fat levels are? Finding out your numbers is the only way to find out what you have to do about them in terms of diet, exercise and medication.
  • Diabetes. Just having diabetes is a risk factor for heart disease. Controlling your diabetes with the right food, regular exercise and medication, if necessary, is the best way to manage this heart disease risk.

Risk factors you can’t control—but you can manage
There are two main factors to accept as unchangeable risks for heart disease:

  • Being 55 or older (if you’re a woman)
  • Having a family history of early heart disease.

You can’t change your age or your family history, but you can be aggressive in your approach to preventing heart disease or in treating it, if you do develop it. And one thing women who are in or near menopause should know—studies have shown that hormone replacement therapy, or HRT, does not provide a protective benefit against heart disease. About two years ago, a study from the Women’s Health Initiative (WHI) showed that estrogen in combination with progestin did not help protect against heart disease. Then this winter, another study by the WHI showed that estrogen alone has no protective benefit either. The studies’ results indicate that HRT should be used only for short-term relief of menopausal symptoms.

But all of this information still begs the question: what should women be doing to keep their risk of heart disease as low as possible?

What should you do?
Even though many women know that heart disease is the number one killer of women, as individuals, women seem to think that a heart attack won’t happen to them. The American Heart Association has developed new guidelines for physicians to use in their heart disease prevention and treatment approach for women. Here are some of their recommendations:

  • Quit smoking.
  • Try to fit 30 minutes of exercise into every day.
  • Eat a variety of fruits, vegetables, whole grains, low-fat or non-fat dairy products, fish and poultry (red meat only about once a week).
  • Limit saturated fat to less than 10 percent of your food intake, consume fewer than 300 milligrams of cholesterol and avoid trans fats—found in most snack foods and fast foods.
  • Maintain a healthy weight.

If you have a heart condition:

  • Take part actively in a program to lower your risk, including medication, exercise, stress reduction and diet.
  • Be aware that you’re also at risk for depression. Talk with your doctor if you think depression is a problem for you

If your doctor has said you’re at higher risk for heart disease:

  • Ask your doctor or nutritionist whether you should take omega-3 fatty acid and folic acid supplements.
  • Ask whether you should be taking daily aspirin.

Most importantly, if you notice any of the symptoms of a heart attack, call 911. Remember, heart attacks don’t always look the way they do in the movies. The symptoms aren’t always obvious. And the sooner you get treatment, the less damage there will be to your heart. These are the symptoms:

  • Indigestion
  • Chest pain
  • Pain that radiates to the arms, neck, shoulders or jaw
  • Shortness of breath
  • Weak or fast pulse
  • Sweating
  • Gray color
  • Nausea or upset stomach

American Heart Association’s Evidence-Based Guidelines for Cardiovascular Disease Prevention in Women; National Coalition for Women with Heart Disease; National Heart, Lung and Blood Institute; The Women’s Health Initiative.
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